Friday, 23 August 2013

Samarpan----Chapters 31-34 & Epilogue

Chapter 31

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

Yash squinted at the bright sunlight  entering through the window as he woke up to Aarti's floral fragrance and the presence of the pleasant weight of her soft body nestled against him, her head in the hollow of his shoulder and his arms around her protectively. He smiled blissfully at how right it felt to wake up like this. Her silky hair fanned his arms and chest, and her hand lay on his heart, rising and falling with each breath that he took. He shut his eyes and recalled the reason they were this close. Sometime in the night, she had moved away. That's when the nightmare must have begun. He remembered waking up to her restlessness and mumblings. She was half out of the sleeping bag, her hand searching for him…and when she muttered with a sob, "Yash…save Payal….come soon," he had pulled her in the crook of his arm along with her sleeping bag, whispering soothingly. She had calmed down the moment she sensed his warmth and had slept peacefully since then. Yash kissed the top of her head and eased himself away slowly. She stirred gently but remained asleep. He stood looking at her for awhile….tenderness softening his face. Her nightmares bothered him…He hated it that she had had one even though he was with her. Will he ever fathom how deep her insecurities and fears are? Worst was that she knew exactly how embedded her problems were in her psyche…the reason why she had pleaded for his patience.
Yash freshened up with the water from the little creek that flowed behind the cabin and then called his father. The chopper had been arranged. They had one hour to reach a wider clearing about half a mile away, where it could land. He stood thinking about how the day might pan out when he heard Aarti calling him frantically. He rushed to find her standing just outside the cabin, looking here and there wildly, almost yelling, "Yash…Yash…where are you?" He ran and hugged her from behind, "Hey! I am right here. I just went back over there to make a call to babuji."
She turned and clutched his shirt, "I didn't see you anywhere so I thought…I thought they had come back and…," she sighed and then angled her head to look at him, "I am sorry. I just panicked."
"I am never going anywhere Aarti. Get that firmly planted in this pretty little head." He threaded his fingers through her hair until he had the back of her head cradled in his hand, and smiled, "By the way, a very good morning to you. The storm is long gone. It's going to be a bright, sunny day. Let's go home. Our daughter is waiting for us."

Suraj Pratap Scindia was there on the helipad to engulf his son and would-be daughter-in-law in his warm embrace, tears escaping his eyes as Aarti whispered, "I am fine babuji. I know you and Yash will never let anything bad happen to me." A man of few words, he promised himself then and there that this girl will never lack a father's love in her life again…that henceforth she will be as complete a child herself as she will complete Payal by becoming her mother. Nature had a way of righting the wrong…life had come full circle for Aarti and Payal, two souls abandoned at birth. The previous night he had formally asked for Aarti's hand in marriage for Yash from her grandmother, who had shed tears of joy while accepting the proposal. Chris and Anna were there to assure her that they will celebrate Aarti's marriage with such grandeur that the whole of Nainital will speak of it for years to come. As per Yash's request, no one had mentioned a word to the little one. He wanted the special moment to be purely between Aarti and Payal.
They had driven first to the police headquarters, where the commissioner himself along with an officer debriefed Aarti about the kidnapping and made her sign a few papers. They returned her phone, which they had found under the seat of the van that was used to kidnap her and which was found at the parking lot of the base camp. She was happy to have it back as it was a recent gift by Aunt Anna for sailing through the Brownies' audit so smoothly.  On their way back, Suraj Pratap took Aarti to the clinic where the doctor checked her thoroughly and a nurse dressed her wound. While she was inside for the dressing, the doctor remarked admiringly how he was pleasantly surprised to see a victim of a recent kidnapping being so normal and brave after going through such a trauma. Yash said gravely, "That's because she has gone through worst…not for one day, but for a better part of her life." His father kept an assuring hand on his shoulder, feeling the tremors passing through his son…the aftershocks.
Back home, naanimaasi almost ran down the graveled path to take Aarti in her arms even as Gayatri, Chris, and Anna walked down the stairs, teary eyed and smiling. Payal squirmed out of Gayatri's arms and ran shouting "Pari…Pari" and literally climbed onto Aarti's arms after squeezing between her and badi naani….bombarding her with a string of queries about where she had gone and why did she leave her. She wouldn't leave Aarti for a minute and sat on her lap when Garima served breakfast, Gayatri and naanimaasi insisting they eat first. With great difficulty and after much coaxing, and only when Aarti told her that she has a secret to share with her and that they will go to the meadow by themselves for a chat, that she let her go upstairs to freshen up. Aarti took a leisurely bath and changed into a lavender-colored churidaar suit. She looked at herself in the mirror and smiled. She was not going to let the harrowing experience of the previous day dampen the glorious feeling of being in love and being bathed in happiness today. What happened was yesterday…today is a new beginning. What she thought of herself yesterday does not hold true today. She remembered clearly the day she had told Maltidi, "Samarpan to someone is not in my fate. Even if I fall in love, I shall not surrender my cursed self to him. It will be selfish of me." She browsed through her phone and stared at Maltidi's recent picture, "I was wrong di…so wrong. You were right all along. There is nothing more selfless than being there for someone…to be needed and loved by someone. There is a feeling of worship in this samarpan, di."
Aarti wiped away her tears and was about to dial Maltidi's number when she heard someone sneeze outside. She hurried to open the door to find Payal sitting on the steps rubbing her nose, a paper packet clutched in her hand. The moment she saw Aarti, she jumped on her lap, scrunching her nose, "Come pari, let's go…I was waiting for you. See, I have taken seeds for the birds from Garima kaki."
Aarti laughed and kissed her, "You were here all this while?" At her vigorous nod, "Why didn't you knock?"
"Papa told me not to disturb you. He said you are very tired. Are you? If you are very tired, you can take me to the meadow later."
Aarti grazed her nose with Payal's tiny one, "I will never be too tired to be with you sweetheart. Let's go."
"What about me? Won't you take me?" Yash had come up and now stood grinning next to the stairs.
Aarti's heart did a flip as she saw him. He had taken a bath; water drops still hung from the tip of the few strands of hair that had fallen on his forehead and which he now brushed back casually with his fingers. He looked breathtakingly handsome in white shirt and jeans. Aarti realized she was staring when Yash winked and smiled; she blushed prettily, feeling a surge of warmth radiate through her at the way he was looking at her now. She turned to Payal, "Hmmm! What do you think angel? Should we take him?"
Payal pretended to think, tapping her chin with her finger as she had seen her dadaji do when he was deep in thought. She then turned to her father and declared, "OK! You can come…but you will have to stay far when Pari tells me the secret."
Yash raised his hands, "Agreed princess. I will come closer only when you call. Promise. Now, can I hold you? Pari is still hurt…remember?"
Yash took Payal in one arm and with the other he pulled Aarti beside him, holding her by the shoulder. He then dipped his head and tickled Payal's tummy with his nose. She giggled and squealed clutching his hair, and Aarti laughed. Anna, who had come up to say Goodbye, stood still on the last step and whispered "Picture perfect."

"Papa, you stay here near this tree. Pari and I will go to that tree. OK?" Payal commanded her father and extended her hand toward Aarti, "Come Pari!"
They walked up to Payal's tree. Aarti glanced back at Yash who mouthed "I love you" and smiled. Payal stopped and pulled her down on her knees, whispering, "Now, tell me the secret. Don't speak loudly…otherwise papa will hear."
Aarti knelt in front of her and held her arms, "Payal, remember the day we came here for a picnic and I told you a story?"
"Yes…the story about the girl who was an angel first and then…."
"…and then became her mumma's daughter when God granted her her wish." Aarti finished.
Payal nodded.
"What do I call you Payal?" Aarti asked. Neither realized that Yash had come closer and was now watching them from behind the adjacent tree.
"You call me your savior angel." Payal smiled.
"You said something else also that day Payal. Remember?"
Payal shook her head.
Aarti turned one little palm and kissed it, "You said when God asks you who you want as a mumma, you said…"
"…I said I will choose you as my mumma," Payal finished the wish, a little confused as to where this was going.
Aarti's own eyes glistened as she gazed into the expressive little pair of limpid pools of Payal and said softly, "Payal, my savior angel, God has granted you your wish."
"Really Pari?" Payal was still a little confused.
Aarti shook her head, "Not Pari….Mumma."
"Yes….God asked me to be your mumma. Will you make me the happiest person in this world by calling me your mumma?"
Both Yash and Aarti waited with baited breath as Payal made a perfect "O" with her mouth and then whispered, "Really? My mumma? You will be my mumma? For always?"
"Yes Payal…for always."
"You will never leave me?" She shifted closer and wound her little arms around Aarti's neck.
"Never. I shall be with you forever." Aarti looked at her daughter with all the love in her eyes.
"God promise?" Payal's voice shook as she whispered into Aarti's ear.
"God promise."
"I love you…mumma."
"I love you so much my savior angel. Say that again…say mumma again."
"Mumma….my mumma. I have been waiting for you mumma." Aarti hugged her little frame to herself and wept with joy. And then she picked her up and spun her around, both of them laughing.
Yash brushed away the happy tears springing to his eyes and stepped forward, "What about me? I want to hug my girls too."
Payal shouted, "Papa…pari is my mumma. I too have a mumma now."
"Yes, you do princess," Yash hugged them to himself, laughing and kissing the two most precious individuals in his life…his chest bursting with happiness. He knew that Payal's desire for a mother ran deeper than just wanting to be like her friends or other children who had mummas. His daughter needed the love of her mumma…to connect with her on a level even he could not reach…to receive and give heart to heart…things that only a woman who truly loves can provide.
And there under the bright sun, three lost souls came together in an eternal bond. The storminess of their pasts converged into a happy fusion of cosmic brilliance!!
Two days later Yash and Aarti got engaged in a small, informal ceremony in naanimaasi's front lawn in the presence of Yash's parents, Prateek, naanimaasi, the Browns, Mr and Mrs Balsara, and the entire staff of Brownies. Yash's dadima was in the village attending an annual puja there, so couldn't make it on such a short notice. However, she saw the ceremony and spoke with Aarti through Skype, which was arranged by the sarpanch's college-going son. Aarti looked breathtakingly beautiful in an amber yellow and red chiffon and net lehenga-style saree given to her by Gayatri. She wore naanimaasi's diamond set, which Raj nana had gifted her on their silver wedding anniversary. Aarti was reluctant to accept such a cherished gift, but naanimaasi insisted, saying, "Wear it Aarti and always keep it with you. It will make me happy. Consider it your Raj nana's blessings."
Yash waited at the bottom of the stairs as Aarti came down holding Payal's hand, who looked pretty and radiant in a red frock. Aarti had done up her hair with ribbons and red flowers, and she looked like a little princess. Yash felt a lump form in his throat at the charming picture they made. He held out his hands for his ladies, his eyes conveying his admiration. Aarti placed her hand on his with a shy smile, a gesture copied to a T by Payal with the other one. He was formally dressed in black trousers and an open-collared light blue shirt that complimented his muscular frame and skin tone. Before stepping out he leaned toward Aarti and whispered, his hot breath fanning her ear, "You look ravishing. How am I going to last till the wedding?"
Aarti blushed to the roots, "Yash…please."
He squeezed her hand and added softly, "Skip the dinner…I have plans for us." Reading the obvious question in her eyes, he stated, "Nanimaasi and ma know."
The very next instant he felt a tug in the other hand. He bent down, "What is it princess?"
She whispered, "What did you say to mumma?"
"Hmm! I said she is looking beautiful. So are you…You are the prettiest princess in the whole world."
Payal giggled softly, a hand on her lips, as they stepped out. Everyone stood up and clapped. Every eye was moist as they welcomed the little family who looked so made for each other. Among chanting of mantras by panditji, Yash slipped an exquisite diamond ring on Aarti's finger. It was a family heirloom, passed onto the elder Scindia bahus when they join the family. Aarti put Raj nana's ring on Yash's finger. He placed a kiss on naanimaasi's cheek and whispered, "Thank you. I am honored." Amid clappings and congratulations, Yash and Aarti with Payal in the middle took blessings from all the elders. The jubilations doubled when panditji announced that there's an auspicious date just two weeks thence, and every single person nodded their agreement for the date to be finalized. Yash and Aarti called up Radhama and spoke with her. She was ecstatic and promised to come for the wedding. Yash told her that he will send someone to accompany her.
Aarti knew Maltidi was crying when she gave her the news, "Don't cry di. If I am happy today, if I have accepted happiness and learnt to trust, it's a lot to do with you." She was standing in the far corner of the lawn, away from everyone. She gripped the phone as she felt Yash's arm around her.
Malti's voice came through, "Don't mind me Aarti. I am just too happy at the moment….so is dadu wherever he is."
"I miss Pandit dadu….You will come to see me get married, won't you di?"
"Nothing will keep me away from my Aarti's happiest moment. Of course, I'll be there."
Yash took the phone from Aarti, "Namaste Maltidi! This is Yash. We need your blessings, so please come. I want to thank you personally for being there for Aarti when no one else was. You were her angel in her times of need."
"I didn't do anything Yash. I just loved her. That's all she ever wanted. I am so much at peace knowing that you have understood that…I can sense the change in her. You have made her feel life Yash….just stay with her always."
"Always and forever di…that's a promise."
He hugged Aarti after the call and walked her back to the celebrations.
Prateek came and hugged Aarti, "Thank you for making my bhaiya so happy, bhabhi. You are Godsent for our family."
Aarti smiled at him, "The feeling is mutual Prateek. By the way, bhabhi sounds so good."
"Much better than Pari, right? I have been dying to call you bhabhi for so long now." He grinned.
"A..ha! Don't be so hasty in rejecting that name yet Prateek. I might just name your future wife Pari." Aarti chuckled. Fateful words…as Prateek reminded her a few years later when he met Pari, short for Parineeta, and married her.
"Yash, why are we going out of the back gate?"
"Shhshh! Have patience sweetheart."
They had slipped away soon after Payal had eaten and dozed off in Aarti's arms. Naanimaasi and Gayatri took Payal inside to change and put her to bed. Suraj Pratap and Prateek joined everyone for dinner, making excuses for the newly engaged couple. Everyone understood that the duo needed some time with each other.
Aarti gasped in wonder as she saw little mashaals* lining the path to the meadow. She felt Yash entwine his fingers with hers and turned her face to find him looking at her rapturously, his face glowing in the light from the torches. She gazed back into the dark depths of his beautiful eyes and saw only herself. He bent down to kiss her lightly and then hooked her arm in his elbow as they walked to the meadow.
She halted abruptly as they came to the opening of the meadow. The place looked enchanting. The periphery was lit up with dim torches and tiny lights. On the center was a round table set for two, with candles and flower arrangement; a side table next to it held their dinner dishes. A couple of sofas on a carpet were placed near the lake, facing toward it. Soft music played from a far corner. Aarti felt as if she had stepped into paradise. It was obvious that Yash had pulled all stops to make this night special for her.
He pulled her gently to him, both alight with love and happiness, and twirled her in circles all round the meadow before putting her down. She laughed in elation and put her head against his chest as he held her close and waltzed. They danced on, slowly, savoring each other, completely enraptured in the magic of the moment and with the passion they felt.
Yash tilted her face with a finger under her chin, "Thank you my darling."
"For what Yash?"
"For loving me and for letting me love you."
"You made me find myself, Yash…you made me respect myself. I spent a better part of my life in a vaccum, but you came and opened the doors to life. I am yours…in this life, and beyond." She reached up to caress his face with her fingers. He turned to kiss her fingers and then bent down to capture her lips. His lips were unbearably soft, almost tender, and she leaned into the feel of the kiss, into him. Her hands rested on the hard muscles of his chest, feeling the jump of his heartbeat beneath her fingertips. His arms slid around her, holding her closer, and she surrendered to the magic and wonder of his love. In this surrender lay the answers to all her tomorrows…where the dark past of today will slowly cease to hold power, and today's joys will become tomorrow's past.

*Fire torches


Chapter 32

Something amazing happens when we surrender and just love.
We melt into another world, a realm of power already within us.
The world changes when we change...The world softens when we soften.
The world loves us when we choose to love the world.

"No Maggie di…I don't need to go to a spa or need a massage. I…I have never gone to such places."
"C'mon Aarti…be a sport. A girl gets married only once in her life. This is the time to indulge and do everything to feel cosseted and beautiful. Plus mom and Aunt Neema tell me that ever since Yash has gone to Bhopal, you have been up in knots about everything. A body massage will relax you. Andy has magical hands."
"Andy? A man?...That does it. I am not going anywhere?"
"Oh dear….Andy is very much a woman Aarti. Her name is Andrea. But she has always been known as Andy in our friend circle. We go back a long way…to our school days. Her parlor is very well known here."
"Can we take Payal? She'll miss me."
"More like you will miss her." Maggie smiled affectionately, "Payal is napping after lunch. We'll be back before she wakes up. OK?"
"OK. Sorry for being such a bother Maggie di. I know you are only thinking about me."
"Hush! You apologize too much…..What? Why are you smiling?"
"Yash says the same thing."
"You love him a lot, don't you, honey? Do you know your face and eyes light up when you take his name? (Sigh) May the Almighty always be with you two! God knows He owes you two lovely people this long-due happiness. Now let's go."
Maggie Brown Mallick, Chris and Anna's daughter, had taken to this quiet, beautiful girl ever since she had had met her three years back. She felt very protective of her…as protective as she was of her own daughter who was only a few years younger to Aarti. She had flown down for the marriage alone. Her daughter's exams were on, so her husband had to stay back. With the wedding less than a week away, she wanted Aarti to enjoy the bridal pampering in its entirety.
Yash and his parents had left for Bhopal three days after the engagement to oversee the marriage preparations there: Invitation cards had to be distributed, post-marriage rituals and reception had to be planned, Yash's clothes and Aarti's jewelry and trousseau to be taken care of, his room had to be prepared for Aarti as well, and million other things to do in such a short time. Also, Yash had been away a long time, and so needed to personally deal with quite a few business issues. He had hated to be parted from Aarti, but she had insisted he go and help babuji and ma get things settled at home. Prateek stayed put in the outhouse to help naanimaasi and the Browns in planning and arranging the wedding, as well as to arrange for an accommodation for the Scindia clan members who were coming to grace the occasion. He finally managed to hire an entire bungalow down the road from naanimaasi's house. The house had many well-furnished rooms. The owners had put it up for rent as they were going to be abroad for awhile.
Payal had stayed back with her mumma. Yash called both of them many times daily and spoke with Aarti till late into the night. As per his wishes, she had to keep the phone switched on through the night, so that he knew they were fine. In reality, he not only felt closer to Aarti and Payal when he heard their even breathing through the phone during his sleepless nights but also was assured that Aarti was not having any more nightmares. He knew her well…He knew that howsomuchever brave she may be regarding a separation from him, but somewhere in her heart she still feared he too will leave her. She had lived in a lonely dark cell for so long that that particular fear would take time to let go of her. He also knew that having lived a life hiding her deepest feelings from everyone, and being closeted within, Aarti found it difficult to share her hurt and fears. She had her own way of dealing with them. He meant to make her open all doors to him slowly…something that might take years. He was going to give her all the time she needed. That is one thing he will ensure no one does ever…that is, impose their will on her.
"When are they coming back?" Maggie asked Aarti as they drove to the spa.
"Day after…that is, a day before the Sangeet ceremony. Dadima is also coming with them. I am really looking forward to meeting her."
"And Radhama and Malti?"
"Radhama is arriving on the evening of Sangeet. Yash is sending someone from the office to accompany her from the village. Maltidi is coming tomorrow night. Her family is unable to make it."
Maggie glanced at Aarti and found her smiling at the thought of meeting these ladies. She knew how important and how special they were in Aarti's life.
"Anyone else Aarti? What about your uncle's family in the US?"
"We don't know where they are. Brij chachaji severed all ties with the family long back. Yash dug up their old address from the place where chachaji used to work all those years ago. I have written…no reply yet. Yash has asked his contacts in the US to keep tracking. I want to meet them someday and take their blessings."
Andy turned out to be a bubbly and vivacious lady…outspoken and friendly. Maggie assured Aarti she was in good hands and went out to make a few calls. During the massage, Andy saw the chest scar and commented, "Gosh! That's a nasty one Aarti. Was it an accident? Does it hurt?"
Aarti shook her head, mutely. This was the first time someone other than Radhama had seen the scar tissue. Even naanimaasi didn't know about it.
"Shall I give you an advice honey? Try to hide it with a pendant on your first night. You never know what can put off a man. Your husband might find it repulsive at first. But don't worry…with time he'll get used to it. It's the first time that matters…Men like their women to be all perfect, you see."
Andy went on chatting about other things. She failed to give much cognizance to the fact that Aarti had not uttered a single syllable.
No one realized because Aarti wouldn't let it show, but Yash knew instantly that something was bothering her when he landed two days later and saw her beaming at him across the lounge, in the airport. The anxiety in her eyes betrayed the smile. His doubts were confirmed when she hugged him…There was a desperation in her embrace. She was apprehensive about something alright. However, when he later asked her, she denied anything was wrong and told him that he was being overly sensitive. Yash could only on look on speculatively as she went and sat down to chat with dadima.
Yash's first meeting with Radhama and Maltidi was extremely emotional. Radhama held Yash's hand to her forehead, clasping it in her shriveled ones, crying softly…till he slid down the chair and gathered her in his embrace…thanking her over and over…telling her how important she was to him and Aarti. She looked up and gripped his hands in her callused ones and whispered chokingly, "This old woman's blessings are always with you beta. God has answered my prayers and sent his masiha*… He has sent you. I have never seen my Aarti this happy and so much full of life. You have brought spring into the winter of my child's life…I cannot thank you enough." Maltidi was equally profuse in her gratitude and good wishes, "This is Aarti's rebirth Yash…A new life for my little friend. All because of you." Yash was overwhelmed. How could he tell these people that he could have Aarti…now, because they were there…then. They were the angels who guided her, nurtured her, and cherished her when she was abandoned and left to wither away. They protected her spirit when it was needed the most.

The wedding day saw a throng of invitees circulating on the huge lawns of the Gupta House and enjoying the hospitality of a unique wedding…wherein both sides were coming together to get a daughter married. Uncle Chris and Prateek had done wonders with the decor, which was much appreciated by all…The guest list included who's who of Nainital and all of the friends of Browns and Naanimaasi, including the customers of Brownies who were very fond of the sweet girl in the shop who always helped the poor and hungry.
Amid the sea of people Yash stood waiting for his bride in front of the beautiful floral mandap…which was done up with rajnigandha and roses along with intricately twisted and patterned pastel-colored sheer curtains. Payal came out of the house holding Maggie's hands. After they had come down the stairs, she picked up her lehenga the way her Malti maasi had taught her and ran toward her father. She matched Yash in color…both wearing a combination of maroon and off white. She looked like a pretty little dressed up doll with an all-important air of a little princess….After all her papa-mumma were getting married, something she didn't tire of repeating over and over. Yash looked handsome and proud in his tastefully designed sherwani and pagdi.
Payal paused and adjusted her dupatta and then slipped her hand into Yash's outstretched one. Both smiled at each other. He bent down as Payal beckoned him with her eyes and whispered in his ears, "Mumma is looking lovely, papa…like a queen. She is coming with dadaji." Yash kissed her and straightened up. He was outwardly calm and serene, but his thoughts were all jumbled up and filled with nervous excitement as they ran like wildfire through his mind. Yet, through the maelstrom of the moment, only one name resonated from his very soul and filled his entire being…Aarti.
Movement near the door caught his eye as it opened again and he saw his father step out, with Aarti holding him by the crook of his elbow. Yash's heart froze in midbeat and he caught his breath at his first sight of her. He saw her eyes travel through the crowd searching for him, spotting him almost instantly. She stopped motionless, only seeing him and forgetting everything else. In a dream, she saw him lift his hand and keep it on his heart and then point it toward her. She smiled radiantly and then heard babuji say, "Come child…let's get you married and take you home."
The arresting vision of the bride took everyone's breath away as they followed her walk down the stairs, with naanimaasi, Maltidi, Radhama, and Aunt Anna, all looking exquisitely charming in their sarees and jewels, flanking her on the other side. Dressed in a simple and elegant burgundy and gold lehanga-choli and adorned with traditional jewelry gifted by naanimaasi, Aunt Anna, and the Scindias, she looked breathtakingly beautiful…mesmerizing everyone into a hushed silence. Naanimaasi's eyes blurred when she glanced up to see her smiling and glowing with happiness, her eyes not wavering from Yash's as she took small and graceful steps toward him…her lehenga gently swishing with each movement
The soft smile never left Yash's lips as she slowly approached him…though he wondered whether his heart was still beating. Aarti too felt the poignancy of the moment and suddenly found her mouth dry and could scarcely swallow when she looked at him. She always thought Yash to be extremely handsome and attractive, but today his proud stance made him something much more. He looked regal…the glint in his eyes reflecting the urgency to make her his wife. His dark eyes met hers…His expression, unfathomable for others, brought extra blush to Aarti's cheeks as she read what it implied. Her eyelashes lowered in an unexpected shyness, and then lifted again as if by a magnetic biding of his eyes. They were wrapped in their own zone and were vaguely aware of everyone shifting as Suraj Pratap passed on her hand to Uncle Chris, who was to do the kanyadaan**. After the jaimala*** ritual, Gayatri took charge of Payal as the bride and groom entered the mandap. They sat down facing each other, their eyes in silent communication of their own, as the panditji asked Yash to stretch out his hand and then made Aarti keep her hand on his. He closed his fingers on hers…his grasp warm and reassuring, calming her nerves. Panditji put some flowers on their hands and then called on Uncle Chris to sit down for kanyadaan. Uncle Chris's hands on theirs along with panditji's loud chants jolted them out of their reveries. Uncle Chris proudly fulfilled the duty of giving away of the daughter and then bent down to kiss Yash's and Aarti's foreheads before moving away.
They changed positions to sit side by side for the main ritual, turning to smile as Payal crawled between them and then refused to move thereafter. She sat through the entire proceedings, helping Malti tie the knot of their gathbandhan****, softly mumbling the mantras with Yash, and even taking the pheres with them holding onto Aarti's dupatta end. When Yash tied the mangalsutra and put sindoor, tears trickled down Aarti's eyes….The very next moment her daughter's little fingers had wiped them away, and then she had drawn her parents in a tight hug. It was their moment….Payal had her mumma and Yash his Aarti. He whispered to Payal, while gazing into Aarti's eyes, "She is ours now princess…all ours…forever."

Prateek had done up the outhouse for the newlyweds. They were to be there before catching their flight to Bhopal the next afternoon. The rest of the family were leaving by the early-morning flight. Naanimaasi and Radhama were to accompany Aarti, Yash, and Payal, stay in Bhopal for a week, and then come back. Malti di too was to catch a morning flight back home.
Aarti clutched a droopy Payal to herself as she entered the outhouse with naanimaasi and Malti di. Payal refused to let go when naanimaasi called her. Aarti shook her head and told them it was fine…that she would put Payal to sleep. She hugged Malti di and promised to visit her within a year. Naanimaasi whispered that she'll come later for Payal and then left to see off the guests.
The moment they left, Payal bolted up in Aarti's arms, her eyes going wide, "Wow mumma!! This room is looking so beautiful…candles, flowers, new bed, new curtains. Will we sleep here tonight?"
"Yes darling…we will. Come now…let's change you into pajamas, and then I'll tell you a story." Aarti looked around and smiled. Prateek had indeed made the room beautiful…very soothing to eyes, with dim and concealed lighting, few candles, a couple of flower arrangements, and a pretty curtain of flower strings on the wall behind the bed. Thankfully there were no flowers on the bed and around it…She surmised that would be as per Yash's directives. She knew for sure that he had requested Maltidi to personally ensure that the beautician didn't go overboard with her make-up and dressing. He didn't want "superfluous things to overshadow his Aarti's simple and ethereal beauty. And definitely no hairdo….please keep her hair open." Maltidi had mimicked and laughed heartily while narrating Yash's instructions.
"Hmm! Wh…what? Were you saying something angel?"
"Hee..hee. You were smiling to yourself mumma. I was asking, what about you? Won't you take off all the things you are wearing?"
"Of course…I will. But that'll be later. It's much past your bedtime…so you first."
Payal was asleep in no time. The day had been exhausting for her. However, this was the most fulfilling day of her little life….this was the day God granted her only wish and completed her family…this was the day she was born again.

Aarti was just beginning to take off her bangles sitting in front of the dressing table when Yash walked in. He stood enchanted across the bed as Aarti looked up…her gaze locking with his. Suddenly realizing that she had taken off her dupatta, she put her hand on the cleavage where the scar was and turned away. The movement roused Yash and made him remember what he had to do first. He picked up Payal and handed her over to Maiti di who was waiting outside to take her to naanimaasi.
When he went back in, Aarti was attending to the bangles of the other hand…and she had draped her dupatta. He walked up to her slowly. She stilled as she felt his presence. Yash knelt in front of her and turned the stool toward himself such that she faced him. Her eyes were downcast, her lashes fanning her cheeks as she bit her lips. He didn't say anything…but removed her hand and began taking off the bangles. She stole a glance at him. He was staring at her with so much love. She immediately looked down…the fear that very soon that look will change into disgust made her heart beat frantically. The bangles done, Yash reached for her ear rings. She still refused to look at him. He then took off her dupatta, all the while gazing at her. Leaving the mangalsutra, he took off the two necklaces. Finding another chain with a huge pendant, he went for the clasp, but Aarti kept her hand on his and shook her head. He took her hand, kissed it, and kept it on her lap. He then proceeded to remove the pendant.
"Look at me Aarti," he commanded. She shook her head again. He gently rubbed his thumb on her chin and tilted her head up, softly pleading, "Please darling…just look at me." She shut her eyes as warm tears trickled down. He mouthed a faintly audible oath and kissed her. Her eyes flew open, the unexpected act surprising her, even as she kissed him back. He probed her mouth, eliciting the passionate response he so needed. He kissed her cheeks, her eyes, her neck, the corner of her mouth, and then again capturing her lips. Her hands crept onto his shoulders as she lost all sense of time, soaking in the comfort of this desperate love.
Breathless and hanging onto his control by a whisper, he pulled back and cupped her face with his palms, making sure she was looking at him as he said, "I love you Mrs Aarti Scindia…I love you as you are. Look at yourself through my eyes Aarti. You are the most beautiful woman in the whole world."
He had to strain his ears when she murmured tremulously, "But I am not beautiful all over. You…you will hate me when you see my ugliness."
Yash gave her one long hard look and then reaching behind her opened the dories of her choli (blouse). She gasped and held her breath, an unknown thrill running through her, as she felt his fingers intimately touching her. He didn't waver his eyes from her gaze, as he slowly removed the choli and kept it aside. He then bent his head and kissed her scar deeply and then one by one all the minor scars surrounding it. Aarti didn't realize when she broke down, as he got up and engulfed her tightly in his arms. When she calmed down, he whispered, "How could you think that I would hate you my love? To think you have been torturing yourself for so many days over this!….. Don't you know me love? Don't you know that even if your body is covered in scars, I would still say that my Aarti is the most beautiful woman in the whole world…and mean it?"
She sniffled against his chest, "I am sorry Yash." And then looked up at him through moist, dewy eyes, "How did you know?"
"About the scar? I've known about it for awhile. Remember the poem you wrote about the mirror?"
She nodded…understanding dawning.
"Also, you have this habit of subconsciously touching it whenever the past troubles you." He bent and picked her up and sat her on the bed, propping up the pillows behind her. She watched as he took off his sherwani and sat down facing her. He fingered the scar and kissed it again, trying to imagine the physical pain she must have endured at such a young age. He took a deep breath and looked up to find her innocent gaze watching him, no more self-conscious of her semi-naked condition. Without any effort Yash had removed all her hesitancy… She caressed his cheek. How could she think he would find her repulsive? She should have known better than to doubt the depth of his love. This man has seen her soul…he has loved her along with her emotional scars. These few physical scars are nothing compared to that. As all the haze cleared and the tension ebbed from her body, she smiled shyly in surrender. His eyes darkened with passion as her hand travelled through his sharp jaw line down the neck over his bare chest to rest on his heart. She leaned forward and kissed him, "I love you Yash….Promise me you won't ever leave me."
He hugged her and uttered the words she wanted to hear, "You have my word. I'll be with you till my last breath and beyond. I have waited an eternity for you. Now that I have you in my arms, I am not letting you go ever. Are you ready to tolerate all the loving from me…hmmm, my love…are you?"
He felt her lips widen into a smile against his chest, as he heard her teasing tone, "Mmm! I wouldn't know, would I? By the way, is this all? Or…," she lifted her head and gazed bravely into his eyes, a smile lurking at her lips, "…is there more?"
He held her at an arm's length, taking in her beauty, drowning into those mischievous eyes, "Is that a challenge I hear my love? Don't you know I never back away from a challenge?" Her answering grin did him in…and he bent down to show exactly what he was capable of doing...loving her and teaching her about love.
Much later, as they lay entwined in each other's arms, he said, "Aarti I too need a promise from you."
"I promise." She murmured from the crook of his neck.
He chuckled, "You haven't even heard me out."
"Don't need to."
"Yes, you need to," He kissed her forehead and said, "Promise me that come hell or high water, you will never hide anything from me…howsoever serious or unimportant the matter is. You will share everything with me. What happened with the scar should not happen again. You have nothing to fear from me darling, or for me. You are my strength…as I am yours."
She sat up on her elbow, "I promise Yash."
He held out his hand, "Is that a deal?"
She kept hers and nodded, "It's a deal."
He pulled her over him, and then there were no more words that night…..only feelings. There was a lifetime ahead for words….

Bhopal…three years later….

"Payal….say something angel."
Silence….and then oh so softly, "But he is so tiny!!"
Everyone laughed, except Aarti, who beckoned her to come closer, "He is now. But when he drinks lots of milk and plays with his didi, he will grow up fast. Do you want to take him on your lap and hold him?"
"Oh yes! May I mumma…may I?" Her eyes shone with love and wonderment at the little bundle of joy that lay next to mumma and whose eyes were fixed on her.
Aarti shifted to a side, as Yash took off Payal's sandals and sat her on the bed, cross-legged. Very gently he picked up their son and put him on his didi's lap, telling her how to hold him.
"Aayu…I am your didi." She whispered.
Aayu looked at his sister with hooded eyes and then reached out to grab her finger, closing his eyes and slowly drifting off to sleep.
They didn't notice their parents stare at each other wondrously…..
*masiha = God's messenger
**kanyadaan = ritual wherein the father (in his absence any other elder male member in the family) hands over all his rights and duties towards his daughter to her prospective groom
***Jaimala = ritual where the bride and the groom exchange garlands
****Gathbandhan = the scarves placed around the bride and groom are tied together symbolizing their eternal bond


Chapter 33

A person who cannot surrender cannot be self reliant.

Nainital….Present Day

Yash awoke to her softness hugging him and her lips softly moving on his, even as her fingers caressed his features. His fingers slowly reached up to run through her hair as he deepened the kiss. She broke away when her probing fingers met wetness. She pulled away and bent down to kiss away the remaining moisture in the corners of his eyes, and then just held him to her bosom, cradling him. Aarti had woken up close to dawn, and not finding him next to her had come looking for him. She had found him sprawled on the old settee in the attic with the purple diary on his chest, which she recognized as the last one before she had left Hoshangabad.
She rose and pulled him up, tugging him out of the room after switching off the light. Yash didn't say anything, just followed her quietly. His mind was full of what he had finally read in the night…pages after pages of a young girl's mute fight against atrocities of the worst kind, almost on a daily basis, and somehow finding the spirit in her to keep herself stay afloat. She had to be the most courageous woman in the whole world. And to think there was not an iota of bitterness in her…and certainly no ill-feeling for the individuals who treated her with such cruelty. How could anyone be so good? He marveled at her fortitude to find the courage to move away from those memories and move on to embrace life so wholesomely. Not once had she allowed the shadows of that darkness to touch the luster of their life. Nothing fazed her…she always smiled through everything. The family drew their strength from her. No one could take a step without needing her. She was fiercely protective of the children. In short, she was the center of their universe.
Back in the room, Arti took off his shirt and handed him the kurta. He threw it aside and drew her in his arms and buried his face in her hair, still swamped in the melancholy of the bits and pieces of new knowledge of her past, "Aarti…oh Aarti!" His pain was all consuming….and she could not bear it.
She turned her head and kissed him on his chin, and then whispered, "Make love to me Yash." And so, as the first blush of the dawn stained the sky pink and bathed it in faint light, Yash made slow and lingering love to his wife, his pain easing out in her arms…and he slowly came back to life again.
As they lay sated in each other's arms, Yash leaned over to give her a light kiss and then let out a husky laugh, "I had forgotten how much sweeter 'just desserts' are in the morning. Thanks for the reminder darling. Hmm! I think I should begin the day with such sweetness every day. What do you say love?"
Aarti faked a groan and chuckled, "Looks like I have created a monster. Poor me!!" And he laughed heartily. Aarti sighed contentedly…she loved to hear him laugh. The sound always made her feel all warm and fuzzy inside. At least his good spirits were back…which was her intention. Her heart had broken when she realized he had sat crying through the diaries in the middle of the night…alone. She had to do something.
After a few moments, she slid her head away from his chest and rested on the pillow, turning his face to her. Yash saw solemnity replace the passion and humor in her eyes, as she said, "Yash, I think I have earned a return gift."
"Anything my love. You know you only have to ask."
"Burn them."
"What?" He sat up, looking down at her stunned.
She sat up too and then cupped his face, "Yash, I want you to burn those diaries before we leave….No, no…just listen to me first. Those diaries are chronicles of a past that you and I have left behind. I have made my peace with it Yash…It's about time you did too."
"But Aarti…you…"
"No Yash…I don't need them anymore. In fact their presence or absence doesn't affect me anymore."
"But Aarti, even today a mention of your father troubles you."
"Yes, it does. I cannot erase the hurt altogether…but Yash, I don't hold onto it anymore. I don't carry the pain around me like some…like some unshakeable burden. All because of you Yash…you have long erased the pain from the scars that remain but are nothing but faint reminders of bad times. You taught me that forgiveness in not only about absolving someone who has hurt us, but it is everything to do with unloading oneself of the burden of being a victim. You guided me to be a dignified survivor…and not a sorry victim. Today, those times are like any uncomfortable memory….Yes, I hurt when I'm reminded, and then I see you and the kids and I am fine. I am no more a slave to those memories…and I won't let you be as well."
She paused long enough to brush back the lock of hair that had fallen across his forehead, and then continued, "Why do you think I wrote the book now? After all these years? Yash, the day I let go off the shadows completely was the day I picked up the pen and wrote the first sentence of "Samarpan." You read the Prologue tonight. Do you recall the first sentences?" She reached across and picked the book from the side table and handed to him, "Here…read the first para to me."
He looked at her wondrously and then read softly, "A foggy haze surrounds the present chapters if you keep re-reading the past ones. The words of yore are mere recordings of a time gone by and not the shackles that should bind us. Till we waken to this fact and surrender to what is, we will only be searching for what was…shadows in the relics of the past. It's time we begin today and make for ourselves a new ending. It's all about what we want today, and not about what we had. Let's surrender to today and create our own past from today's present……"
Yash was completely awestruck as he understood what she was saying through her words, "You really mean it, don't you?"
She smiled and nodded, her face gloriously beautiful and glowing in the aftermath of their lovemaking, one of the many things about her that continued to enchant him.
"OK Mrs Scindia…your wish is my command." He halted, as if he had suddenly realized something, and then looked at her with consternation, "You didn't mean the journals also, did you?"
Aarti laughed, "God forbid…No. Negative. As if you would let me touch them….You are much too possessive regarding them." And then softly, "I know what they mean to you Yash. I only meant the diaries. The diaries that were once a lonely girl's only companion to share the day with. However, that was another lifetime. There is no need to harbor those chronicles anymore. I have you now to share each moment of my day."
They heard the faint ringing of naanimaasi's pooja bell. Aarti let Yash kiss her one more time before slipping away, "I'll take a bath and go to naanimaasi. I promised her I'll do the paath today. You sleep. I'll call you when Prateek and Pari are ready to leave."
By the time she had come out of the washroom, he was fast asleep, clutching her pillow to himself.

"I tell you…it's that Saagar, di. The puppy is missing his mistress."
Payal tossed a pillow at Aayu, who had just come out after brushing his teeth and was giggling at his own joke. His dreams about butter-laden Alu parathas for breakfast were shelved for a few minutes as he saw Payal attending to another blank call…third since morning. He caught the pillow neatly, "You will see I am right. I have seen him go all tongue-tied and forgetting which languages he knows when he faces you…I am sure he must be dialing and then thinking…English or Hindi? Hello or Namaste? He is a moro.…"
"AAYU!!! Stop it…I am serious."
"OK, di…OK. No need to get upset with me. I was only suggesting who that could be? If you are so worried, tell pa. He will find out in a jiffy."
"No Aayu. There must be something wrong with the phone lines after last night's rains." Payal tried to reason it out. "Why worry papa unnecessarily? You know how he gets if he feels someone is bothering me. But it was eerie alright…I could hear someone breathing and then there was a jingle of bangles. (Sigh) I guess someone is desperately trying to reach someone, but lines are getting crossed."
"Oh yeah! That could be it. Whatever!….I am famished, and I can smell chachi's special parathas…Mmm! C'mon di. Hurry up! Race you to the dining table."
Aayu dashed out of the room and rammed straight into Prateek, who was coming to fetch them for breakfast. "Whoa champ! Slow down….The parathas are not rolling out anywhere."
"Sorry chachu. Goodmorning! Actually I was racing with di…but I guess she is not interested."
"Right…you go. I'll get her." Prateek entered the room to find Payal staring gravely at her phone. He ran a hand over her head, "All OK Payal? Are you expecting a call?"
"A call? N…no chachu. I just…" She looked up at his smiling face and decided against telling him about the calls. She could just be overreacting….and in that case she wouldn't want chachu to fret. With Ansh ill in Bhopal, he and chachi had a lot on their platter. She suddenly slapped her forehead, "Uffo chachu…I almost forgot. Aayu and I have something for Anshu." She went and opened her cupboard and took out a beautiful jungle raft, which was painted in a myriad of jungle colors and which had a beautiful green, leaf-shaped sail that was decorated with little bells and ribbons. A little figurine of a boy stood holding the mast. On the sail was painted "Ansh's Ark."
Prateek's heart swelled at the love and thoughtfulness behind the effort, and he said as much, "It's a piece of art sweetie. Did you and Aayu make it?"
""Yup," She grinned, "We did….and had a blast making it. Of course, papa was a lot of help. It floats you know. Anshu can try it in the fountain in front of our portico."
"Ansh will just love it…But I think he would want to wait for his didi and bhaiya to come and give the demo."
Prateek and Pari left after breakfast. Yash went to drop them at the airport. He had a couple of errands to run before getting back home and take everyone to a friend's house for lunch. Over the years he and Aarti had made many friends in Nainital…..mainly because of Scindia Aman Shereton, which was now the premier hotel in the area. Sumit Shenoy, their invitee, was a member of the board of directors. A few years back, Scindias had handed over the reins of running the hotel to Maggie and her husband Vikram Mullick. They had relocated to Nainital after their daughter went abroad for higher studies….mostly because Chris and Anna needed them to be around to take care of them as well as the Brownies. Now the main outlet of Brownies was inside the hotel. They maintained the little shoppe in front of their house, for old timers. It was looked after by Maansi, who was happily married now. At the moment the Browns were visiting their extended family in London.
Yash had just entered the house when Aayu ran down and pulled him upstairs. He looked very excited, "Hurry up, Papa. I have something to show you."
Yash's unspoken query was answered when he saw the three ladies in the balcony, peering over into the tree. They all turned and put fingers on their lips. Yash went and peeked over their heads to find four little birdies going cheep-cheep in the nest tucked into the nearest branch of the oak tree, even as their parents flew in and out to put food into their beaks. He felt a tug and looked down to find Aayu asking him to bend, and when he did, his son whispered in her ear, "Papa, I helped them get the food. I collected a bowl full of worms and kept it on the bird bath there. The parents are getting the worms from there. Can you see?" Yash nodded and ruffled his hairs. He recalled the day he had needed to cut this tree's branch and Aarti had flatly refused, till he had assured her that the tree won't be harmed at all. Both the children had so much of Aarti in them…the same compassion and the same love for nature… an awareness that always filled his heart with pride and joy. He wouldn't have it any other way. He looked at the kids whispering into Aarti's ears from both sides and smiled. He remembered the little poem written by Payal in the Mother's Day card…something like
Mumma, take a good look at me,
Can you not see yourself in me?
Look into my eyes
It's your image that lies.
See the person I have become.
The job that you have done
I myself don't know
Where I ended…and you've begun.

"Mumma, can I ask one more thing?"
They were on their way to Shenoys' place, and Aayu's questions about birds and their lifestyle were never-ending. He was sitting with his mother and sister in the back seat, while naanimaasi sat in the front as Yash drove….his attention on the conversation happening behind.
Aarti smiled patiently, "Sure Aayu!"
"Do all birds build nests and lay their eggs there?"
"Hmm! Not all. You remember the koel I showed both of you the other day in the meadow?"
"Yes, the cuckoo bird…right?" Payal said.
"Yes…Do you know she doesn't care about hatching the eggs or caring for her babies?"
"Really mumma!! How mean? What does she do then? Lay the eggs and leave the babies?" Aayu's eyes had gone wide as his mind absorbed the information like a sponge.
"No...she does worse. She doesn't even build a nest. When the time comes, she lays the eggs in a crow's nest and then abandons them. It is the crow who feeds the little koel birdies and teaches them how to fly and tends to them as her own."
Payal put her hand on Aarti's arm, and Aarti turned to her, "What about the crow mumma? Doesn't she realize that the babies are not hers when the eggs hatch?"
"That's the beauty of motherhood Payal. When she sees the little ones, nothing else matters to her except that they are hers and she is their mother." Aarti glanced at the rearview mirror to find Yash's glistening eyes on her. Naanimaasi reached out to pat Yash's hand on the wheel with a tremulous smile.
"Wow!!" Aayu exclaimed with wonder, "That means almost all the crows and koels are brother sisters. Right di?"
"Yes Aayu…it's the love that matters…nothing else." She suddenly threw her arms around Aarti and hugged her tightly, "I love you mumma." Yash had to stop the car. He couldn't see the road through blurry eyes. Naanimaasi quietly through her arm around his shoulder and squeezed it.
It was Aayu who lightened the mood with his own brand of brainwave, "Papa, when the tadpoles become frogs, will the fishes in the aquarium think they are their mothers?" As Yash guffawed while wiping his tears, the others chuckled….Poor Aayu! He waited for someone to answer him. Sometimes, he couldn't understand the elders, especially when they got all sentimental for no reason. Now, what was there to be so huggy-huggy because of a bird story?

Payal switched off the phone after speaking with her best friend and turned to go out in the front lawn where her parents sat with their friends. Shenoys had called four other couples with their children. The kids were all playing in the backyard. Payal didn't have anyone of her age in this gathering, so was busy catching up with her friends on phone. She stared at it now and recalled the blank calls of the morning. There weren't any more calls after that. She sighed and felt relieved that she hadn't upset her parents unnecessarily. When it came to her, all three of her family members became overprotective. She was about to open the door when she heard noises of shouting and fighting. Aayu's voice was the loudest. Payal turned and ran out in the back, even as the elders got up from their chairs.
Aayu and Sanjay, Shenoys' twelve-year-old, were involved in a skirmish. She could see her brother livid with anger. What could have happened? Aayu was not the type to get even mildly angry. She hurried across and separated them. She could hear her mother's shout from behind.
Aayu was all teary-eyed as he tried to break free and get back at Sanjay. Payal knelt down and shook him, "What is it Aayu? What happened?"
"He..he said…," Aayu sniffled and pointed at Sanjay.
"What sweetie? What did Sanjay say that made you mad like this?" Payal reached out and wiped his tears. He held her hand tightly and said, "He said bad things about you. He said you are not my sister…but my step-sister. He said that I can never be your real brother because I was born to mumma but you…" He couldn't say further as he buried his face in Payal's neck and hugged her, whispering "I swear di, if he says one more bad word about you, I'll beat him dead."
Sanjay was frisked away by his parents and was given a dressing down inside the living room, as others slowly moved back to the front lawn to give the Scindia family some privacy. Yash and Aarti stepped forward, but naanimaasi stopped them, "No Yash…let them sort it out first."
Payal rubbed her brother's back up and down as she calmed him, "Hush Aayu! Don't cry. Look at me….Remember what mumma told us about the koel and crow babies?" Aayu's wiped his eyes and nodded, "Well, we are somewhat like them…don't you think so? You are my baby brother and I am your di…nothing can change that, whatever anyone says. And most importantly, we are both papa and mumma's children. They both love us equally. You know Aayu, when I was younger, I had asked badi dadi once as to why I was not born out of mumma. She told me that even God made mistakes at times, but when God realized His mistake, He immediately sent mumma to me. She was always meant to be my mother, as you were meant to be my brother." She kept his smaller hand on her heart and hers on his, "Aayu, mumma has taught me that true relationships are born from heart. So, next time anyone says anything, you just have to tell them this. There is no need of a fight. OK?"
"OK di...(sniffle) I love you di."
"I love you too my angry young bro." She planted a kiss on his forehead as he grinned and walked up to his parents, "I am sorry papa, mumma, and badinaani. I should not have become so angry and fought with Sanjay."
Yash hugged him, "It's OK champ. These things happen. Now go and make up with Sanjay." He nudged him toward the door, and then called him back, "Err son…" When Aayu turned, he winked and said softly, "You did good. I am proud of you."
"I heard that Yash."
"What? C'mon Aarti…the boy was only defending his sister. We Scindia men don't take insults to our girls lightly." He gave a thumbs-up to Aayu.
Aarti rolled her eyes and walked forward to embrace Payal, "I am so proud of you angel. You handled that so well."
"You know mumma," Payal whispered, "For a moment I felt like you…like you were when you talked to me when I was small and would be confused about something."
"That's because you have my heart in you. You stole it many years back…remember?" Aarti pulled back, wiped her tears, and smiled, "Now enough of this mushiness…let's get back and put our hosts at ease. I could see them coming harshly on Sanjay. Time to mend fences."
That's when Payal's phone rang. She began pulling it out of her jeans pocket and said, "You all go…I'll take this call and come. Sana was supposed to call. Must be hers only."
She saw her parents and badinaani walk back in and answered the phone, "Hello!
Silence….Payal swallowed and said, "Hello! Who is this?"
Bangles jingled, and then, "Payal, this is your mother."


Chapter 34

What you meet in another being is the projection of your surrender
and your own level of evolution.

The phone almost slipped away from Payal's hands, "Excuse me!!! What kind of a joke is this?"
"I am not joking. I am really your mother…and I want to meet you." The voice sounded urgent.
Payal was irate, "Stop it! I don't know know who you are and what you want…but I have my mumma right near me. So don't you dare…." Payal jerked her head as she heard Aarti calling her in an urgent voice. The next moment she was there hugging her and then pulling her, "We need to leave immediately, Payal."
"Why mumma? What happened? Is everything alright?" Seeing Aarti all wound up and worried, Payal forgot all about the call and followed her.
"No darling…badi dadi has had a heart attack. She is in ICCU. Dadaji called. Papa is trying to get tickets for the evening flight. Go and sit in the car. I'll fetch Aayu." As she opened the front door and ushered Payal toward the car, Aarti turned to her, "Is your call over? The phone seems to be on."
"Oops, I forgot...Anyways, that was just a crank call." Payal switched off the phone, forgetting about it instantly…her mind full of anxiety for her badi dadi. She turned and took Aayu in her arms as he slipped in next to her, whispering his queries into her ears. She automatically answered him whatever she knew. Naanimaasi was on phone with Gayatri. Aarti drove back as Yash sat next to her, constantly on phone. Thank God Prateek and Pari were already there. He sneaked a glance at Aarti…She immediately reached out and gave a squeeze to his hand, her eyes on the road.

Sitting on the lone chair in the small hotel room, the woman in the red skirt and halter top stared at the phone, angry that the girl had termed this a crank call and hung up on her. Her husband spoke from behind her, "Do you think this is a good idea, Arpita? She doesn't know us. Will she help us?"
Arpita swung around, a smug look brimming with confidence written all over her face, "I gave birth to that girl Rahul. Wait till she realizes that her own parents are alive. This is India. Blood ties are deemed strong here."
"But Arpita…Yash will never agree to it."
"Oh, he will. Especially when Payal pleads our case. That's why we have to meet her. It's time she is introduced to her real parents and faces her origins. She owes her life to us. Yash cannot deny her. Once before also he had loosened his purse strings for her…and he is bound to do it again. Trust me…I have lived with that man for seven months. I know he is a slave to sentiments. He will do anything his precious daughter asks him to do."
Rahul rubbed his tired eyes, "I just hope you are right. We really need that money….If we don't clinch that deal, the company will go bankrupt. Mark isn't being an understanding partner anymore."
"Am I not always right honey? Besides, now I am seriously thinking of taking Payal with us."
"You are? Why this sudden decision?"
"She denied my existence Rahul…and she called that other woman mumma. Somehow that pinched." She sat down and lit a cigarette, "We never had another child. She is the only one. Legally she is theirs. The only we can have her is if she insists on leaving them and being with us." She blew a ring of smoke and looked up at her husband, "She would have imbibed all the idealistic Scindia values…including a sense of righteousness. Trust me…When I play the sentimental card, she will do the right thing."
"Oh my God Arpita! You are serious about this."
"Of course I am. I have made up my mind."
"But why are we getting into this now? What good will she be to us? We aren't exactly well-off anymore. Her presence will mean extra expenses. We can't afford to rear her." Rahul was confused and his bafflement shown on his face. What was his wife upto now? Over the years he had come to rely on her acumen and cleverness in turning lost causes into profitable ventures. But he was getting a bad feeling about this. He didn't want to touch his father's property yet…wanting to keep it as a surety for future. But now…..
"Are you doubting me Rahul? Think about it. If she is with us, one channel to the Scindia coffers will always be open to us. They will never cut her off. It's a win-win situation for us."
"If you say so." Rahul was not entirely unconvinced. "You have never been wrong about such things."
"No, I have not been. That's why we could do so well…till now. If only…." She shrugged and stubbed her cigarette, and then got up, "Come…we need to shop for clothes. We have to dress the part when we meet our long-lost daughter tomorrow."

Though it was late in the evening, they went straight to the hospital from the airport. Yash wanted naanimaasi to go home and rest after the travel, but she refused. She and dadima were very good friends, and she wasn't about to breathe easy till she saw her. Except Pari, who had gone home with Ansh, everyone was at the hospital. The doctor's prognosis was encouraging. They found one blocked artery, and were quite sure that if her diet and exercise were taken care of, she wouldn't have to undergo any surgery. The cardiologist wasn't keen on putting her on the table, given her advanced years.
The old lady's vivacity wasn't dented at all, and she met everyone with a smile and her typical wisecracks. All the needles and tubes and the nurses's overprotectiveness couldn't bog down her vitality…and certainly not her fighting spirits. Yash and Aarti were the last visitors, before the doctor put a clamp on any more visits in the night. Knowing her nature, he didn't want his patient getting hyper.
Aarti bent forward and kissed dadima's cheek, "You rest dadima. We'll come again tomorrow morning."
Dadi gripped her hand, "Aarti, I feel like having palak-paneer and halwa. Will you…"
"Oh no, no grandma," the night nurse interjected, "You can't have all that now. You can only have soups and juices to start with…from tomorrow. And no food from home. We don't allow…."
"Aarti, tell this white demoness to shut her beak… Sheesh! If it's left to them, I'll die of starvation rather than due to this heart."
Yash sighed, and Aarti suppressed her smile and spoke softly, "Dadima, unfortunately she is right. You can't have that kind of food now. But tell you what, I'll make your favorite soup and get it tomorrow. Yash, you will talk to the doctor for permission, right?"
"Of course, as soon as I am out of this room. Dadima, I love you, but I know you very well. Please be easy on these nurses. You will get better fast if you let them do their job…OK?" He crossed his fingers at his side.
"OK…but tell the doctor I want that sweet-looking young nurse who was here in the evening…I want this ugly tyrant out of here."
"Dadima!!!" Both Yash and Aarti went red-faced as they stole a glance at the nurse, who nonchalantly went about filling her chart, before looking up to say, "Nice try grandma…You aren't going to get rid of me so easily."
"You think so!! I'll tell the doctor you are a bully and a terrorist, and…"
"You can do that tomorrow. But tonight you are under my care, and you have to keep quiet now. No more talking."
"See Aarti…see…This one is a tyrant. You just wait, woman…this is my hospital. I will fire you as soon as I can."
"Like I said…you can do all that tomorrow…Now sleep. Madam, Sir (this to Aarti and Yash) please leave now. She needs her rest."
Yash went out first, but Dadima wouldn't let Aarti go, "Beta, please sing me the Krishna bhajan."
Aarti looked up at the nurse who nodded, gesturing to make it soft and low. Aarti had just finished singing the first stanza, when she felt dadima's grip loosen and her breathing become easy. She was asleep. Aarti wanted to stay back in the hospital, but the doctor refused saying there was no need. Dadima was in good hands. So everyone went home, hoping for a better tomorrow. Unfortunately a certain lady from the past had other plans….
Next morning they went to the hospital to find dadima had been shifted to a private room. She was much better, but still was not allowed to have a roomful of visitors, so after spending some time with her everyone came back home to freshen up and have lunch. Prateek and Pari took Ansh to the pediatrician for a checkup. Naanimaasi and Gayatri stayed with dadima.
Aarti rang the bell. Payal and Aayu were standing near the car with their dadaji, who was explaining to them how a heart attack occurs. Ram Dulare opened the door and told Aarti a couple were waiting for them for about an hour. Yash was on phone when he felt Aarti clinch his arm. He looked at her…She appeared shell-shocked…as if she had seen a ghost. He followed her gaze and found himself looking at his ex-wife and her husband. Arpita stood next to Rahul in a green cotton saree. No jewelry barring the mangalsutra, and her hair tied back.
"What the hell? What are you doing here Arpita?" Without realizing Yash had shouted, and his father and kids rushed in.
Suraj Pratap came in saying, "What happened Yash? Who…Oh my God! What's this woman doing here?"
"Who are they mumma?" It was Aayu. Aarti was the first to recover. She turned to Payal, "Take your brother and go inside. Don't come out till I call you."
"OK mumma…Come Aayu." Without a word she took Aayu's hand and both turned toward their rooms, but had just taken a couple of steps when the lady's voice halted them. "Stop! Payal…my baby. It's me…your mother. Come here my child…I want to look at you."
Once again it was Aarti who barred her husband and father-in-law from physically advancing toward Arpita. They were absolutely furious at seeing Arpita's audacity. Aayu looked stunned, and Payal staggered as she stared at the woman and then at her mumma.
Aarti held her daughter's eyes for a moment and then walked toward them, "Arpita…Rahul…this is a surprise. Why don't you sit down and tell us the purpose of your visit?"
"Are you deaf lady? Didn't you hear that we have come for our daughter?" Arpita looked at Aarti with contempt.
Payal and Aayu came and held Yash's hands. Yash looked at them and then at Aarti, completely at loss as to how to handle the situation. It was evident that Arpita had come to cause trouble…and he knew exactly why she was here. But all that for laters…At the moment the kids, and primarily Payal, were of priority. Arpita had walked in and rocked his princess's safe world. This time she had gone too far….and he won't leave her, Yash promised himself. There was no way she will lure away Payal from them. He stared at Rahul…who to his credit was looking very uncomfortable. It was clear who wore the pants in that relationship. Yash forced himself to cool down and think. He then leaned and whispered something in his father's ear who immediately turned and walked away toward the study.
Aarti stared back at Arpita, and when she spoke, there was steel in her voice, "Arpita, if you have come to see Payal, you are most welcome, but if you have come to hurt her, you will have to get past me first."
"And you are?"
"I am Payal's and Aayu's mother and Yash's wife, Aarti Scindia."
"You are just a proxy mother to Payal. I am her real mother." She looked up at Payal, "Come here Payal."
Payal looked at Aarti, who gestured her to come forward, "Payal, this is Mrs Arpita Tyagi, the lady who gave you birth. It's OK, angel…You know what to do."
"Oh…" Payal found her strength in her mumma's calmness and walked up to Arpita, bent, and touched first her feet and then Rahul's. She stood stiffly as Arpita and Rahul embraced her. "Oh Rahul…look how beautiful our daughter is."
Payal stepped back and jerked her head toward Yash, "Excuse me Ma'am! I…I am…it's nice to meet you. I didn't know…"
"You didn't know what? That I was alive? Aw my baby, it seems these people have lied to you.…In fact both your parents are alive. Rahul is your real father, Payal."
"No!!!" Aarti, Yash, and Aayu rushed to hug Payal as the pure sound of agony escaped her lips. Her face had paled with shock and her eyes were deep pools of raw pain as she looked up at Yash and whispered, "Papa, she is lying…isn't she? You are my father, right?"
They all went still in the embrace. Aarti pressed Yash's arm and nodded at him. Yash was devastated. He had to do this right. He cupped Payal's cheeks and looked into her eyes, "Listen to me, Payal. It's true that I have not sired you…but in every which way you are my daughter…my princess…right since the moment you were born. These arms were the first to hold you when you came into this world, and from that moment you and I were joined by heart. And that's the only real truth. Princess, we didn't mean to hide anything from you….It just didn't matter to us. You are our daughter and soul of this family….that's the only fact that matters."
"Does everyone know?"
"Yes Princess…dadaji told the rest of the family on your first birthday. It never changed anything." Yash would have done anything to ease out the pain of his daughter.
Payal shut her eyes for a few moments as tears streamed down her face and then she stepped back.
Arpita saw her window of opportunity and pounced, "Payal, I know we are a few years too late, but we wanted you to have a good life so were busy establishing ourselves. If we had settled down early, we would have come for you earlier. This was always a temporary arrangement." Arpita lied through her teeth, as she stared defiantly at Yash, "We want to talk to our daughter…privately. Please let us get to know her."
Payal stared at Yash and then at Aarti, who gave a slight nod, and whispered, "Go angel…I trust you to do the right thing."
Yash tried to hold her back, but Aarti shook her head, "Let her go Yash….We can't deny that they are the creators of our baby. They do have a certain right on her. Payal too will have some questions…She will want those answers. Don't worry…Payal knows what to do."
Payal stepped near Arpita, and looked back once at the three individuals who were her world. Her eyes were huge pools of distress as she comprehended the silent, visual embrace they sent her way. "It's okay," they messaged. "Everything will be fine. We love you." Aarti kept her hand on her heart and nodded once…and then she held Yash's and Aayu's hands and pulled them toward the overbridge spanning across the pool in the center of the big hall, from where they could see Payal but not hear what they were talking.
Holding the railing of the bridge, Yash turned to Aarti, "Tell me that we haven't lost her."
Aarti tightened her hold on Aayu who was clinging to her and then reached out to touch the worry lines on Yash's face, "No, we haven't. Trust me Yash….Once this is over, Payal will be permanently on our side of the bridge, without any dilemma or doubt nagging her through her life. She didn't invite this…but if this is thrust on her, she has to face it. I know my Payal….I have faith in her and our love. Even now she knows that she only has to turn back to find us waiting for her."
"She will come to us….we are bonded by heart." There was an unflinching sense of conviction in Aayu's voice as he looked up at his parents. There was no doubt in him. His eyes were dry and reflected confidence.

"I have a few questions."
"Of course baby….I'll answer all your queries."
"Why now?" Payal stared at Arpita and Rahul with clear eyes.
Arpita grasped Payal's hands and spoke with a shaky voice, trying to sound as emotional as possible, "I told you Payal…We had to get ourselves on our feet and be financially secure so that we could give you the life you deserve. It's unfortunate that it took all this while. You are our only child and we want you back."
Payal nodded, pondering for awhile and then looked at Rahul, "Why were you not married to her when I was born? If you are together now…why weren't you then?"
Rahul cleared his throat and spoke hesitantly, "Actually…ah…, I went out of town in search of work without telling Arpita. Erm…I didn't know she was pregnant….and she thought I…umm...had left her. It was a misunderstanding." He looked pleadingly at Arpita.
Arpita turned Payal's face to her, "That's right Payal. Yash came over to our house with a marriage proposal. He instantly fell in love with me, and offered to marry me in spite of knowing that I was carrying someone else's child. I was vulnerable and so took the decision to marry him…all for you. I thought you needed a father. After you were born, Rahul came to meet me in the hospital. He wanted me back. I requested Yash to let me and my daughter go because I loved Rahul, and not him. But Yash refused to let you go. He was angry with me and wanted his revenge I guess. He slipped in the custody papers along with the divorce papers, and since I was so physically and emotionally weak after your birth, I didn't check and signed them."
Payal was as calm as her mumma now, "So that's how easy it was…to let me go that is."
"… You have to understand that I had no choice. Yash threatened to malign your name in the society by deeming you illegitimate."
"What? Do you even know what you are saying? My papa would never do that."
Arpita's tone hardened, "Firstly, Rahul is your papa. Remember that. Secondly, you don't know how ruthless your so-called father can be. Scindias are powerful names in this society. We were left with no choices. We didn't have any money to fight for your custody. I told him that he hadn't seen the last of me…that I'll come back for my daughter. And here we are….You belong with us Payal. Your real parents….your blood relations."
Payal looked down at her hands for a few seconds and then locked Arpita in a stare, "Why do you think my papa fell in love with you? Did he say he loved you?"
Arpita held the eyelock, her brain churning for a plausible answer. She hadn't catered for the girl's stubbornness. She answered with a smile, "No, not in so many words. Actually he fell in love with my writings first….He read some poems I wrote in a journal and became interested. I gave him the journal to read, and by the end of it, he was so in love that he wanted an early wedding."
Payal smiled. Then she shook her head.
"Why are you smiling?" Arpita was puzzled, "Is it because you are fine with us coming here now?"
"Recite me one poem."
"You say you wrote an entire journal of poems…Surely you can remember and recite one."
"Are you being sassy Payal? Hasn't the woman you call your mumma taught you how to behave with your elders?"
Payal stood up, "Sorry if I sounded rude. Will you wait a moment please? I'll be right back."
Payal ran toward the bridge. Yash, Aarti, and Aayu had already started walking toward her. Payal took Aarti's hand and walked back. She made Aarti stand in front of Arpita, "Ma'am, meet the lady who wrote every single word of that journal." Payal looked back at Yash and winked…and for the first time since he laid eyes on Arpita, he relaxed…and smiled back. No one noticed Suraj Pratap coming and standing a few steps behind with a file in hand. He was angry with himself for not preempting this situation…At the same time he was confident that his granddaughter would handle it. After all he was a proud witness to the way Aarti and Yash had brought up their children.
Arpita's eyes widened, "What rubbish? Are you calling me a liar?"
Payal shook her head, "I am not calling you anything Ma'am. I know you are lying. You have not spoken a single true word to me. You said such bad things about papa…Did you really think I'd believe that of him? I know him too well….you apparently don't. About that journal….Look at my mumma here, Ma'am. Haven't you met her before?"
"You are that girl from Arts Department of SRN College, aren't you?" It was Rahul. He looked at Arpita with a defeated resignation and shook his head, knowing exactly how this will end now.
Aarti crossed her arms, "Remember me Arpita? I am Aarti. We last met seventeen years back when you snatched away my journal because you thought your boy friend was eyeing me." Aarti looked at Rahul and then back at Arpita, "I guess I should thank you for passing the journal in to the right hands."
Finding herself cornered, Arpita turned to Payal, "Will you let this stupid woman insult your mother? She was nothing then…and she is nothing now. Now you know who your real mother is…you belong to me."
Payal straightened herself, "Please mind your language Ma'am. You are speaking of my mother. She is everything to me. I am not going to waste my breath telling you how much I love my mumma and what she means to me. I would have hoped for you to understand this, but now having met you, I realize you wouldn't. And, for the records, I don't belong to you…," gesturing toward Aarti, Yash, and Aayu, "this is my family. You gave me birth…but they gave me life. They were there when you chose not to be. Today I choose to be with them."
Arpita tried to say something, but Payal held up her hand, "Please let me finish. Do you know why they didn't tell me about you till now? It's not because they wanted to hide anything…it's because they knew the truth would hurt me…that it would hurt me to know that my birth parents abandoned me." Payal looked at Yash with moist eyes, "I am proud to be my father's daughter. He is my hero. I don't care to know what happened the day you dumped me, but I know my papa. He saved me. He and mumma have loved me as their own child. They didn't tell me the circumstances regarding my birth because it did not matter anymore. Yup…it doesn't matter. It's that simple Ma'am…something I feel you will not understand."
As Yash and Aarti continued to look proudly at their daughter, she had her final say, "I don't know why you have come now. I don't want to know. However, I want you to know that I respect you for being who you are and thank you for bringing me into this world. I will never leave my parents, my brother, and my family." She bent and touched their feet and then stepped back, "Goodbye!" She turned to Yash and Aarti, "Papa, mumma…we'll talk after the guests have left. Come Aayu…let's go to the room. Help me make a 'Get Well Soon' card for badi dadi." And so, with head held high, Payal gripped her grinning brother's hand and walked away.

Arpita saw red as her well-laid plan went kaput, "The bi**ch…How dare she…" Before she could complete her say she fell down on the sofa, her cheek stinging with a full-blooded slap rendered by Aarti, who lifted her index finger and warned her, "Don't you dare utter one ill word against my daughter, Arpita, otherwise you will have no place to hide from this mother's wrath."
Yash threw a hand around Aarti and calmed her, "She won't be able to do anything once I am done with her Aarti. Babuji, may I have the file please?"
Rahul looked suspicious, "What file?"
Suraj Pratap handed the file and turned as the door bell rang, "That would be the commissioner. Yash, you handle this. I'll be in the study with the gentleman." Before going, he addressed Arpita, who had stood up rubbing her cheek and was glaring at Aarti, "The only reason I am not handing you over to the law is because of Payal and because, all said and done, you were once married to my son. However, if I find you even in the far vicinity of my granddaughter and my family, I will not be so lenient anymore."
Arpita turned to Yash, "How dare you all threaten us? We will sue you for kidnapping and assault and …."
"Save it Arpita." Yash threw the file on the table in front with disdain, "Read it…and then get the hell out of here."
"What is it?" For the first time Arpita was nervous. She knew her game was up the moment Payal had turned her back. Rahul picked up the file.
Yash crossed his arms on his chest and spoke in a cold voice, "It has the record of all the illegal dealings you both have been involved in in Canada, including the latest caper that left you bankrupt. Now listen carefully…You will not try to contact Payal ever. If you even think of causing distress to her after this, these papers will find their way to the authorities….and that's a promise."
Arpita's face was white as she stared at Yash, "How did you know?"
"I know you, Arpita." Arpita felt a shiver of fear run through her, as Yash continued, "Once before also you underestimated me. Did you really think I wouldn't keep a tab on you? I know every single thing about you, and will continue to do so. I have never trusted you about our agreement over Payal. If you used her to get money once…I knew I couldn't let it go past you to do so again." He turned to a slightly confused Aarti, "The only reason they came here for Payal was because they wanted access to her inheritance. They knew that we wouldn't let her go empty-handed if she had chosen in their favor. But then, you were right…as you always are…You knew Payal would do the right thing."
Aarti nodded with a smile, "Yes…She is our daughter. Oh Yash, I am so proud of her." Yash smiled back. He felt so complete with her. Her faith in the people she loved never wavers. For a moment back there he was scared…What if?? But Aarti's trust in Payal remained rock solid. As he looked from her to Arpita, he couldn't help comparing the two and thanking God yet again for making Aarti be his life and his soul mate.
Rahul kept back the file and turned to Yash, "I always knew this was a mistake, but Arpita blundered in thinking that blood ties are stronger than those of love. I can see where we lost…and you won." He extended his hand, "I am sorry. For whatever it is worth, I promise this is the last you have seen of us." Yash shook hands with him and gestured toward the main door. Rahul nodded and dragged a defeated Arpita out. He knew that once she is over her arrogance, she too will repent…but by then it would have been too late. Because of their foolhardiness, they had lost any chances of even a cordial relationship with their only child. Maybe that's why God never blessed them with another child…because they didn't value the one they had….

"Shshh…no more tears, angel…no more. It's over now. We are going to be fine." Payal was in Aarti's arms, being consoled by her. Yash stood with his back to the window, holding Aayu from behind…both fighting to hold back the jostling tears.
Payal sniffled and pulled a little away to look at her mother, "Mumma, am I bad? Did I do wrong in leaving them?"
"No sweetie…no. Never think that. What you did was to listen to your heart and make a choice. And you did that on your own accord…only after you had listened to what they had to say. It was a fair decision in every which way."
"OK…Tell me, if you had gone with them, who would have been happy? You?...Us?...Them?" Payal shook her head vigorously. Aarti kissed her forehead, "Right. No one. Not even them…simply because you would have been miserable. In the end they would have hated themselves for taking you away from us. However, now when they go back…initially they will be upset, but then they will realize it's only your happiness they want. And your happiness is here…with us. So, you see…you did good. I am so very proud of you." There was no point telling the child the real intentions of her birth parents.
Finally, a radiant smile broke through Payal's pretty face, reaching into the very depths of her soulful eyes, as she felt peace settling in. Mumma is right. Why didn't she think it this way? She rested her cheek with her mother's cheek and whispered, "Thank you mumma. I love you so much."
"And I love you….Now go and give those two a hug. They have been waiting for too long."
Yash hugged his kids to himself tightly and looked over at his wife. She had a serene smile on her face. All these years and his breath still caught at the sight of her. He knew he would never tire looking at her. He mouthed an "I love you" and beckoned her with his eyes…and she ran to her family.
She was joined to them through her soul.
She was at home where they were.
She was their haven as much as they were hers.
She was one with them in a journey of innumerably silent and profoundly loving memories……..


One Month Later….

"One final question Ma'am?"
"Please go ahead."
"Smita, the protagonist in Samarpan, went through a number of negative relationships in her life before meeting Varun. Do you think it is really possible in real life to come away unscathed if someone has suffered such negativity in the beginning of their lives?"
"Of course it is possible. It's just a matter of perspective. Each and every person who has been part of our lives helps in broadening our horizon of consciousness….and that involves all the so-called negative relationships too. Once you come to terms with the realization of Why the negative relationships were in your life, you have learnt to pave way for a future sans such negativity. Life has it's own way of teaching us lessons and to decide for ourselves which direction to take. Don't you think so?"
"But Ma'am, in reality will someone like Smita ever achieve peace of mind after such traumatic experiences?"
"Aha!… "Someone like Smita"…By saying that you are making her seem like a model victim of sorts, whereas by the end she ceased to think herself as one. In fact, if you ask me, after she met Varun, she met the warrior side of her own self. As far as achieving "peace of mind" (making finger quotes gesture) is concerned …it's a phrase that is just so subjective. Well, I am no philosopher, but I can safely say that acceptance brings peace….peace that was always there within you, waiting for your acceptance. Simply put, you have your peace of mind when you surrender to what's on your mind. Letting go is acceptance, and not denial of what happened. What you see as the end of the road is actually not…there's always a bend…and there's always someone or something to guide you to it. (pausing for a fraction of a second) Hmm! To be more clear, I would like to read the last two paragraphs of the final chapter?:

Varun held her gaze and said, "Smita, when I wasn't even aware of it, you showed me how lonely I was; then you smiled and suddenly I felt whole. You made me feel again and showed me that there was someone who loved me and needed my love. Now, I say the same thing to you, darling, that there is someone who needs you and who wants to take your loneliness away. I need you….and know that you need me. Will you marry me?"
Smita looked back at him for what seemed an eternity, and then she smiled, nodding. As he pulled her into his arms, happiness radiating from his smile, she couldn't help thinking, "Varun is right. I can feel it…I can feel the peace in this surrender. There's no place I'd rather be than here….in this moment… emotionally and physically. No memory of past and no worry of future can spoil what is now."

The reporter looked up as understanding dawned. Aarti smiled at him, and he smiled back, "You are right. I have my answer. Thanks Ma'am."
As the press conference concluded, Yash stood up holding Aarti's hand and announced, "Thank you very much for gracing the launch party of my wife's book. Our family is much obliged. Please move to the Banquet hall for some music and dinner." He looked around proudly at the elite gathering at Aarti's book launch party. Mr Swami had done a wonderful job with the prelaunch publicity. He had pulled all the stops….press releases, online events, tagging the book bloggers, the literary circles, the reading clubs, and so on. Initially he had passed on the book discreetly to a few known critics who owed him favors for a behind-the-scene feedback. The verdict was unanimous; each one of them had come back with a thumping review: This will be a winner all the way.
As the rest of the family moved in to congratulate Aarti, she turned to Yash, "Did I do OK?" spoken softly with a slight quiver in her voice, noted only by him. He threw his arm around her and smiled, "You did much more than OK….You did fantastic."
The children came and embraced her. Payal was all agog with excitement and pride, "Mumma! You were enchanting. You speak so well. I am so…so…proud of you. My friends are waiting for you back there. Should I get them?
"Sure angel…and thanks."
As Payal rushed to the group of youngsters standing at the end of the hall, Aayu whispered, "Err…mumma!"
"What's it Aayu?"
"Actually, I couldn't understand half the thing you said…all grown-up stuff. But I clapped the loudest…so did Karan and Rohan. They have gone to get something to eat. They'll meet you later. OK if I join them?"
Aarti smiled and gave him a final squeeze, "Go…The dessert table is on the left." Grinning from ear to ear he ran off.
The evening at Scindia Shereton stretched longer than expected. The buzz about the book had attracted many out-of-town media people and litterateurs as well. All of them wanted to have a personal word with the new writer on the block. Aarti found herself surrounded by a throng of people all the time. Yash never left her side.

Payal checked her phone for her social network messages before turning in for the night. Aayu had gone to his room after bouncing around her room for quite a few merry minutes, chatting with her about the party, and feeling mighty proud of their mumma….till Yash had come and directed him to go to his room after the Goodnights. It was much past his regular bedtime, and he had to get up early next day for his Tennis lessons.
Payal yawned and checked her mail for a last look. She almost leapt up with joy and ran to Aayu's room.
He was already asleep. However, Payal couldn't wait to share the news, "Wake up Aayu! C'mon…wake up."
Aayu stirred and sat up, rubbing his eyes, "Di…what happened?"
Payal hugged him with a laugh, "I couldn't wait. I had to congratulate you now."
"Congratulate me? What did I do?" Aayu was wide awake now. He just couldn't recall what he had done that got her so excited.
Payal sat cross-legged on his bed and beamed, "You won the Runner-up prize in the International Photo Contest for Kids conducted by National Geographic."
"WHAT???...But I didn't…"
"You didn't. But I did. On your behalf."
"Really Di."
"Yup…A friend of mine had mentioned about the contest. So I sent a few of those Nainital pictures you clicked. I wanted it to be a surprise. I saw the mail confirming the prize just now."
Aayu jumped on her lap and hugged her tight, "Oh..thank you…thank you…thank you Di. My wonderful, wonderful Di." The next moment he was on the floor pulling her down, "Come…come...Let's go and tell papa, mumma."
"What? No…no…not now, Aayu. We shouldn't disturb them now."
"Why not?"
"You have to understand…They have had a hectic day. They must be very tired. Tell you what…we'll wake them tomorrow with the Great news…OK?"
"OK Di. If you say so." He felt low for exactly half a second and then looked up with a twinkle in the eyes, "But both of us can celebrate, right?"
"Aayu…what do you have in mind?"
"They sent home the remainder of the chocolate cake. C'mon Di…let's raid the fridge. And Di…"
"May I sleep with you tonight? I'll be too excited to fall asleep alone."
She laughed and ruffled his hair, "Of course! As your Fairy Godmother, I grant you your wish…You are the champ."
And giggling softly they sneaked toward the kitchen.

Yash entered the moonlit room to find Aarti standing near the French windows…looking out. He closed the door and walked up to her, hugging her from behind. She let her head fall back on his chest. Together they gazed at the moon-bathed garden in a companionable silence, drawing comfort from each other's presence. Swayed by the flower-tinged fragrance of her hair and the warmth of her soft body, he shifted her into his arms. At that moment, all he wanted to do was to feel her next to him, to revel in her success, and to dazzle in the spark of her being….a spark that brightened his entire universe. There was nothing more he wanted…there was nothing more he wished.
"Thank you."
"For what?"
"For everything…For being you. You know I am the luckiest woman in the whole wide world…cause I have my very own genie."
"Really? So, does my lady wish for anything in this moment?"
"Only one thing."
"What, my love?"
"An eternity with you…and beyond."
"You got it."

*************The End*************

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