Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Sparsh---Chapters 7-10

Chapter 7

Your lingering presence
hangs heavy in the air
I can’t escape this pain
that causes my heart to tear
The sound of your voice
as you'd say my name
was that of a deep love
and not a name to claim
So all I have are memories
They're what I won’t tame
I can never forget your existence
Even if I go insane

The phone had slipped from his fingers, as Yash sat stunned. “Mishti…Mishti….” He whispered over and over. “It was her…it was.” But how is it possible? HOW? And what if he was mistaken? He dismissed the thought as soon as it occurred. “I can’t mistake her voice….it’s impossible.” Ever since that day…the anniversary of the day she had left him…he had felt Mishti all around him. Hearing her voice again after all these years had badly shaken him, and try as he might he couldn’t shrug of the feeling of hope that had sprung up. How many times had he prayed, how many times had he wished for a miracle, in the last six years? He closed his eyes in turmoil, “What’s going on my love? You have been trying to tell me something, haven’t you? Tell me what to do…please.” Opening his eyes he saw a message flashing in his phone and bent down to pick it up.
“I won't…I’ll come…I won’t fail you…not in this life….” His shaking fingers had accidentally pushed the voice mail button. He forgot to breathe for a moment as he listened to the sweet voice…second time in a matter of minutes. Clinching the steering wheel tightly, he pressed his forehead against it. He sat thus for a long time, thinking about her. Slowly the tension ebbed away and calmness washed over him in waves, as haze of uncertainty born out of the shock lifted away. He knew what to do. Reaching back for the bottle of water, he unscrewed the cap and took large gulps, staring out of the windscreen, his face set in determination. First he had to find out who Ansh’s mother was…. He started the car and headed for Arpita’s house.

“Come Ansh…let’s go beta…dadu is waiting.”
“Mumma, let’s stay for some more time please.”
“Yes Aunty…please stay….Ansh says you tell very nice stories. Papa doesn’t know any stories. He only reads to me. Please tell me one story….please…please….”
Aarti knelt down and engulfed the two kids into the fold of her arms.
“Palak…Ansh….you both are tired…and so are nana/nani. You have to think about them also, right?” Both of them nodded in unison. “Then…don’t you think we should call it a day today?....Hmmm!” They agreed, but seeing their disheartened faces, she added, “Tell you what, Palak when you come next, I’ll take you home for a sleepover and then we can eat popcorn and ice-cream and listen to a nice story late in the night. Deal?”
They both grinned at that and shook hands with her in the cozy deal. Palak gave a tight goodbye hug and kiss to Mishti. “I really love this Aunty,” Palak thought as she looked at Mishti with worshipping eyes, “Why can’t papa make her my mumma? She is sweet, she is fun, and she doesn’t get angry. I shall have to talk to papa about it!!” Taking leave from the old couple, Mishti and Ansh left. Arpita’s parents liked this girl…her spirit, her effervescent personality, her goodness, her helping nature. They had first met her in the local park a couple of months back. She had come with Ansh and her father-in-law and they had brought Palak, who had come for her visit. The kids had introduced them to each other….they being in the same school. Even though Ansh was a year senior, he had taken to the little girl who, on seeing him sitting alone on the school stairs, had come and sat next to him during the recess on the second day of his new school, offering him her tiffin. She had chatted along as if she had known him all her young life. After that they spent the recess together everyday. Arpita’s father had found a friend in Mr Dubey and Mishti got along well with both of them. After that they had met a few times in the park. Mishti had called them over for a meal once. They knew her as Aarti and that she worked in an event management company, and she knew them as a very nice couple who, even though they had lost their only child, found happiness in their granddaughter and the NGO they ran together. She never probed for more.

Yashs’s car screeched to a halt in front of Arpita’s house. He jumped out and ran to the door, impatiently ringing the doorbell. Now that his hopes were rekindled, there was a sense of urgency. “What’s taking them so long?” He was about to ring again when the door opened, and Arpita’s father looked at him in perplexity. He was supposed to come next day for Palak.
“Namaste, baba!! Sorry for disturbing you, but I…err…I needed to ask you something.”
“Of course, Yash! Come right in. Have you eaten?...No? You sit…I’ll call Deepa. She was putting Palak to sleep. Poor girl was dead tired.”
“No, it’s OK baba…let maaji be. I haven’t come for Palak.” He fidgeted in his seat. “Err, baba…when I called earlier…I mean when I was speaking to Palak, she started talking to a lady. Was that Ansh’s mother?”
“Yes beta…she was. A very nice girl. Your maaji and I like her very much. Why do you ask Yash?”
“Pardon me…but may I know her name and number? Actually Palak talks about her so much…and she even sends goodies for her in Ansh’s tiffin…so I thought I’d thank her for being so nice to her.”
Arpita’s father looked at Yash with confusion.
“For this you came all the way? You could have easily called me on my mobile.”
Yash looked blank…What was wrong with him? It hadn’t even struck him…The moment he realized what he needed he had rushed, wanting only to act on his thought. He rubbed his eyes tiredly as he looked down, jerking up at the very next instant at baba’s words.
“Aarti Dubey….that’s her name.”
Somehow he knew….all signs, all paths so far had led to that one name. It cannot be a coincidence….not anymore. Yash walked slowly back to his car after bidding baba goodnight and taking Aarti Dubey’s address from him. He drove up to her house and parked it near the hedge line. He was in two minds…whether to go in now or not…when he saw the ground-floor lights being switched off. He decided he would wait for next day. He was about to switch on the ignition, when something made him look at the first-floor window. The lights were off in the room. He saw her emerge from the shadows and step into the moonlight, seating herself on the windowsill. Her face was upturned toward the sky….she was looking at the moon and the stars. Yash felt a lump form in his throat at the ethereal vision. He couldn’t take his eyes of her…She looked pure, beautiful, and sad…so sad that Yash felt this sudden urge to run up to her, capture her in the safety of his arms, and tell her that she should not worry and that everything will be fine and that she should hold on to that radiant smile of hers. A passing car brought him out of his reverie and he realized where he was. He closed his eyes…“No Yash…not yet…there are still things to find out. What if this turns out to be a baseless hope? An illusion. What if I am heading for fresh heartbreak?.....Oh well, at best I will be disappointed if I trust this hope too much, but I shall certainly live in torment if I don’t trust enough…..She never gave up on me; I owe her this much.” The battle between his mind and heart raged on as he started the car and drove away with one last look at her.

Mishti collected her purse and walked down the stairs just as the doorbell rang. She stopped the nurse who was coming out of the kitchen and had changed direction to attend to the bell.
“It’s OK, Supriya….I’ll see to it. You go and get babuji for breakfast.”
The doorbell rang again, followed by a light knock.
“Coming….coming…For heaven’s sakes, impatient aren’t you?”
She opened the door to find Neema’s finger on the doorbell.
“Don’t you dare Neema!! What’s wrong with you? You are ringing and banging as if there’s a fire on.”
“Well…if we don’t reach in office in another thirty minutes, Vinny Ma’am will have my hide. She called me last night since you were not answering your phone and asked us both to be in office by nine. I was going to call you early morning and let you know about this meeting…but I overslept. C’mon Mrs D….hurry up.”
“Oho!!”…Mishti stood frowning, chewing her lower lip….something she always did when she was deep in thought. Yash had caught her doing that more than once when he had reached out for her hand, and had admonished her for the habit that could hurt her. She shook her head of the constant influx of his thoughts, “Wait a minute Neema…I can’t just rush of. Let me go and tell babuji and brief the nurse. Ansh is still sleeping. I was about to go shopping for the weekly grocery….and the cook…..”
Her voice faded away to soft self-talk as she turned toward babuji’s room. Neema smiled affectionately at her retreating back. She had deep respect for her boss….at her ability to calmly tackle all her personal and professional problems and at the way she had stood up and braved life after facing such a tragedy at an early age. She went back and reversed the car….just as Mishti came out and sat beside her.
“So, what’s this all about Neema?”
“I really don’t know. Miss M only mentioned about visit of some important clients.”
They walked into the office to find Vinny already there, simultaneously talking on her phone and browsing the files. She nodded at their silent mouthing of a “Good morning” and beckoned them to sit down and walked to the window still talking. After finishing the call she turned back to the duo waiting expectantly.
“Sorry to bother you two on a Sunday. Actually Mr and Mrs Scindia wanted this urgent meeting….something to do with a change in the wedding preparations. My guess is they may have a theme in mind. Well, we’ll soon know…cause that’s their car entering the gate.”
Mishti had stilled. He is here…with Arpita. “Oh God, give me strength.” Her whole body taut with tension, she stood up and turned toward the couple who were just walking in through the doors. She eased when she realized these were the senior Scindias. Vinny hurried forward and made the introductions.
After everyone had settled down, Mr Suraj Pratap Scindia spoke, “Miss Malhotra, my wife Gayatri and I want this to be a double wedding. I have already spoken with Mr Khanna, Pari’s father. We want our older son Yash also to be married on this day. I shall give you the name of the girl and her family in a few days. I just wanted to let you know this well in advance so that you plan for all arrangements now on a bigger proportion.”
Mishti felt blood drain away from her face as she tried to process what she had just heard. Mr Scindia had already gone onto the next point when she spoke up, “But I thought he was already married.”
“Excuse me….who is married?” Mr Scindia looked confused.
“Your son….Mr Yash. I thought….oho…..” She tried desperately to hold on to her swirling senses. Does this mean Arpita is….? Oh God….and his child…How he must have suffered? Everyone was looking at her strangely. Neema gave her a light nudge. She tried to focus as the gentleman very kindly and patiently tried to explain.
“Yash was never married Mrs Dubey. Oh, now I get it….you are asking because of his daughter, Palak. Well, it’s a long story. Suffice it to know that he adopted Palak after Arpita….his best friend…died at childbirth five years back. Arpita wanted Yash to bring up Palak. The little one is the sunshine of our family. However, she is growing up and needs a mother. We didn’t want to see him marry just anybody…hence the wait.”
Gayatri, who was till now only listening to her husband, added her bit.
“Actually…because of Palak, people were wary of approaching us with their daughters. We did get a few proposals, but either the family was not up to the mark or the girl was either a widow or a divorcee. I didn’t want my son and grand-daughter to be tied to a girl who would be too busy looking over her shoulders. We are fortunate to have found just the right match for Yash. She belongs to a khandaani family and is an only child. She is perfect as the elder Scindia bahu….Yash too approves of her.”
She added the last bit as a good measure…more for her own satisfaction, as her husband sneaked in a disapproving glance at her.
As Vinni chalked out the nitty-gritties with them, with Neema giving them the details, Mishti sat in a painful daze…“Yashji, I found you once….and lost you twice.” Just then her phone vibrated. She excused herself and walked to the far window.
“Aarti beta…Yash Scindia is sitting in the Living room.”


Chapter 8

Know, therefore, that from the greater silence, I shall return...
Forget not that I shall come back to you...
A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind.

~~~~~~~~~~Khalil Gibran

Mishti stumbled a step back in shock, but soon controlled herself and glanced at the people behind, only to find Neema look at her with worry and raising an eyebrow in question. Mishti shook her head, giving a tremulous smile, and after signaling to her stepped out into the hallway even as babuji’s voice full of concern came over.
“Aarti?.....Aarti! Are you alright?”
“I am fine, babuji. But how….how did he know? I mean I met him just yesterday….And if it was my name, he would have asked me yesterday itself. Then how?” Desperation was evident in her voice. She was totally shaken up.
“He is Palak’s father, beta. He told me he got our address from Guptaji.”
“Palak’s father? Our Palak’s father?” She put a shaking palm on her forehead and leaned against the wall. “Oh dear! But…even then…how? Oho, I know…Palak was talking to her papa when I went to pick up Ansh last evening. He must have heard me.” Sighing she closed her eyes in resignation. “Alright babuji….this cannot be avoided. Providence is again playing games with me. Well…I can’t fight destiny but I can make him stay away…I have to….for his own good (and yours and Ansh’s…she thought to herself). Please give him the phone…and remember, we stick with our story. He must never know. I’ll come home and explain to you.”
“Right….You OK beta?”
“I am fine, babuji…don’t worry…Your Mishti is strong.”
“As strong as that stubborn man I love,” she murmured to herself as she heard babuji slowly wheel himself out of the room. Knowing him she should have realized how stubborn her Yashji could be with anything concerning her. God may have granted them only a few weeks of togetherness, yet they turned out to be the sum of existence of many a lifetimes; if they felt themselves strangely bound in each other’s presence, then in solitude they discovered the real power of the other’s companionship. It was a power, a feeling that she could never explain to Di even. And now, she didn’t know whether to go over and shake Yashji for being so obstinately persistent or hug him to herself for not giving up on her. A few lonely tears escaped her eyes as she waited to hear his voice…the voice that had been her strength, her will to go on, her motivation to shoulder bravely the responsibilities that Di had entrusted her with when she gave her own life for her. She would never betray Di’s faith. Yashji’s family would never accept her with babuji and Ansh, and she would rather die than make him choose between her and his family. After all who knew better than her what it feels to lose a family…and she had faced that loss twice in her life!! She will have to ensure that he never looks back again and goes on with his life. In any case he did approve of the girl, maybe liked her even…“I wonder how she looks like?” She was so deep in her thoughts that she didn’t hear the soft murmurs, followed by sounds of soft shuffling, and then he spoke.
“Hello!!” She jumped out of her reverie on hearing his deep voice.

Yash had hardly slept the previous night, and whatever little sleep he had were filled with images of her beautiful face….sometime at the back seat of the car, sometimes running through the fields toward the car, among the flowers, and once even in the glass room up on the tower of the farm house. His hand stopped the motion of running the comb through his hair. Closing his eyes, he clearly saw her in that room…her room…looking serene and belonged. “Darn it Yash! Stop! Don’t raise your hopes. You may be completely wrong.” He admonished himself for indulging in wishful thinking and left the room. Prateek was still asleep, and turning toward ma/bauji’s room he found them coming out all dressed to go out.
“Good morning bauji…ma!! Are you going out somewhere?”
“Yes, Yash. Your ma and I have to meet someone. It’s important. By the way, I hope you saw the photograph…(and on seeing him shake his head)…hmm, so…you didn’t. I am serious, Yash. I need your answer before Saturday. If you have no one to present us with, we shall say Yes to Mr Joshi’s proposal for his daughter Mansi.”
“Yash beta…I have met Mansi. She is really very nice. I would love to have her as my elder bahu and take over the household duties. Please think about her….for me.” His mother had her most pleading expression on her face.
Yash groaned inwardly and followed them out. After seeing them of, he got into his car and drove to her place, picking a bunch of red roses on the way. He glanced at the flowers. Red roses…

“Red again, Mishti?”
“Hmm…yes.” She was busy arranging the small bouquet in the bedside table vase…a daily routine as soon as she came in.
“But why red?”
“Why? Because they make this all-white, dull room brighter. I don’t like you being surrounded with whiteness.”
“But I am surrounded by blackness, Mishti?(smiling)….Aha, got you!!.....Mishti!...(silence)…Mishti?”
No answer.
“Mishti? I was kidding. Please say something…..please.”
“Don’t you ever say something so horrible….even as a joke, otherwise I shall…I shall…go away.”
“No…no…I won’t. I am so sorry.”
He groped for the flowers, picked one red rose, and gave it to her, making her smile…..a routine that remained till the day they separated: she would get the roses, he would wait for her to arrange them, and then he would pick one to give her…and then wait to feel her smile. He would never know that Mishti took those roses home and kept them in the wooden jewellery box Di and jiju had gifted her on her birthday…and that the box was the only thing she had asked to be got from home apart from Di and jiju’s wedding photograph that hung in her room when Commissioner Roy had asked what she needed to be taken with her.

The door was opened by a woman who, after asking him his name and why he was there, had requested him to wait in the Living room, saying Aarti ma’am was not home but she would inform Mr Dubey. He kept the roses on a side table and looked around. It was a warm, cozy room with bare essentials: bright yellow curtains, an old sofa with slightly fading maroon cover, a chest against the side wall on which stood a small TV, and a four-seater dining table on which was a fruit bowl and a narrow-necked crystal flower vase holding a single red rose. He was about to walk toward it when he felt a tug. Looking down he saw a little boy clad in Disney pajamas, hair tousled, and eyes still groggy with sleep look up to him.
“Good morning uncle! You are Palak’s papa…isn’t it? I saw you one day in school.”
“Good morning young man….and you must be…”
“Ansh…Ansh Dubey.”
“Nice to meet you Ansh Dubey. You are a good friend to Palak. She has told me a lot about you…..even about how you saved her tiffin from….from….”
“Shivam…! His little face lit up with a big toothy grin as he remembered the incident.
“Ah…yes…Shivam. That was very brave of you. ”
“Umm…girls need to be saved….except my mumma…she is the bravest. Uncle do you know karate? Will you teach me? Then I can beat all the bad people….just like Jacky Chan.”
“Jacky Chan?”
“The actor….Ansh and I are big fans of Jacky Chan…right Ansh?” Yash turned toward the voice. Mr Satyendra Dubey had joined them. Ansh ran up to his dadu and gave a high-five.
“Good morning, Mr Scindia. At last we meet (extending his hand).”
“Good morning, Sir!!! My apologies for coming in unannounced like this.” Yash was totally unprepared to see the old man in a wheel chair…..How does she manage? This must be so hard on her.
“It’s OK son…I understand your concern and the need to know about us. One second please….Ansh, go and get freshened up. Supriyadi will make breakfast for you. Mumma has gone for a meeting.”
“OK dadu!! Bye Uncle.”
Halfway to the room, he turned back, “You will teach me, won’t you?”
“Of course, I will Ansh.”
Ansh ran back and gave him a quick tight hug before dashing away to his room. Yash turned to the older gentleman.
“He is a nice, happy little boy.”
“Yes, he is. Aarti is a good mother…and a very good bahu (this looking at Yash’s eyes). How did you get our address?”
“Palak is my daughter, Sir. Her nanaji gave me the address. I wish Mi…I mean Aartiji had let me know about your coming to Bhopal. I would have helped you in settling down. You know I tried looking for you…later…But the police were just not forthcoming, and then I was told that you wanted to stay undetected. Given what you and Aartiji had gone through, I had to respect your decision. Err…Sir…if you don’t mind, may I ask you something about the incident of that day six years ago?”
“I am sorry, Mr Scindia. I still find it difficult to talk about it. Please wait for a few minutes. Have some tea. I’ll call Aarti to let her know.”
Mr Dubey returned after a few minutes, apologizing softly for making him wait and extended the phone to him.
“Aarti wants to speak with you.”
Yash nodded, taking the phone, his hand suddenly clammy and his heart warm with a sudden rush of blood.
“Hello, Yash Scindia here!!”
Silence….He waited, and then he heard it…that soft intake of breath…before her voice came through.
“Mr Scindia…Mrs Aarti Dubey here. Good morning!! I am sorry you had to go to all that trouble to locate us. I realize you need some answers. Can we meet?”
“Of course….I’ll come over to the VM offices whenever you say.”
“No, not here….There’s a cafe…Cafe Trincas…about a kilometer down the road from our office. I’ll meet you there in an hour. That is if it is not too much trouble to you.”
“Not at all…I’ll be there.”

Yash took Mr Dubey’s leave and drove to the cafe. Parking the car he got out and began his wait. About half-an-hour later, he saw an auto stop. She got out…looking beautiful in a red-and-white Anarkali suit and flowing hair. After paying the fare she was about to turn toward the door of the cafe, when she saw him walking toward her. Before he could say anything, she folded her hands in Namaste, gave him a half smile, and nodded toward the cafe. He quietly opened the door for her. She walked hurriedly past him but her treacherous hair flew across his face. He closed his eyes in bliss and then followed her. The waiter approached them as they settled at their table. Yash got a call and got up mouthing a “sorry…important.” He stood facing her a few meters away, talking. Mishti waited a few minutes and seeing the waiter getting restless looked up at Yash. At his silent “coffee” she gave quick instructions to the waiter for tea and black coffee with two cubes of sugar. She straightened herself as he came and sat down, eying her quizzically. And then, taking a deep breath she spoke.
“Mr Scindia you must….”
“Yash…the name is Yash. There are too many Mr Scindias in the family…and since you will be dealing with us on a regular basis so might as well call us by our names…Hmm!! Also, Yash is a very good name…someone once told me so…long back….almost six years back. What? Why are you looking at me like that? I really would love to hear my name spoken in your beautiful voice.” (God she has beautiful eyes!)
Mishti was indeed looking at him as if he had grown horns in the last six years. Here she was…nervous to the last bone, sitting across him after six lifetimes, and trying to word sentences that would ward him away…while he…he sat there coolly throwing most flirtatiously outrageous lines at her. She narrowed her eyes, suddenly feeling an annoyance creep up, and crossed her hands on her lap and spoke in her most serious tone.
“Look Sir! We are here because….”
“Don’t call me that…Sir, that is. It’s Yash…Y.A.S.H.”
“Alright….Yashji….OK? Will you listen to me now?” She was bristling now, with part anger and part nervousness.
He leaned back in his seat with a slightly amused curve of his lip, noticing how cute she looked in anger with her upturned nose turning red.
“Yashji, the police advised us to leave town immediately after…after…Aman and Mishti were killed….I was…”
“STOP IT!!! Don’t say that.”
Mishti was taken aback with the sudden anger. He leaned forward, hands on the table.
“You know very well, nothing of that sort happened. Yes, a very grave tragedy occurred. You lost half your family at the hands of that bas***rd, but Mishti didn’t die that day.  In fact she is here…now…sitting right in front of me, isn’t she? Isn’t she, Mishti?”
Mishti was too shocked to react.

Chapter 9

Sometimes at night, when I look at the sky,
I start thinking of you and then ask myself, why?
Why do I love you? I think...and then I smile,
it's because I found you in me, even if for a short while.
The way your eyes shine when you look at me,
lost with you forever is where I want to be.
The way I feel when you're by my side,
a sense of completion and overflowing pride.

Mishti was too shocked to react. She stared at him in fascination, not realizing how her eyes clearly reflected waves of passing emotions that were drowning him in their profundity as he stared back. Many a times she had imagined what his reaction would be when they finally meet, but never in her wildest imagination was she prepared for this passionate outburst. She closed her eyes and chewed on her lower lip, trying to think fast. He knew her too well…and she needed to get out of this quagmire he was pushing her in to by some quick thinking.
Opening her eyes she fixed him with the most sympathetic look she could muster, seemingly in complete control, although her heart was pounding against her ribcage. "She told me, but I always only half believed her….never thought she was grown up enough to understand such deep emotions, leave alone feel them. I had to see it to believe it."
"What the hell are you saying?"
"Just that I am not Mishti. I am Aarti….her sister, and I am so happy that even if for a little time, my baby sister had someone to love her so deeply…someone who brought out that once-in-an-eternity love in her. Those few weeks before she was taken away were the happiest days of her life. I shall always be indebted to you for that."
Mishti looked outside the window while saying the last, lest he saw himself in her eyes.
"So, you won't admit that…."
"There's nothing to admit, Yashji (looking back at him)….You made the same mistake as so many others have done before, that is  confuse our identities because we were so similar and always so close."
Yash couldn't help but admire the tenacity and the courage of the woman sitting before him, and felt a gush of pride surge through him. It didn't go unnoticed by him that after the initial shock of what he deliberately tossed at her, she regained composure in no time. She was fighting back. He should have known….his Mishti was anything but a quitter. He realized then that he had his work cut out for him. She won't give in easy…If only he knew the why of this. Sighing, he decided to tone down on his attack….and touch on something he knew she would be prepared with.
"Your voice…."
"I know…Mishti and I sounded the same. The orphanage where we grew up is full of stories about how they mistook us because of our voices, that is when they were not doing it with our names. When I was seeing Aman, Mishti played many a pranks on him assuming my identity on phone. (An involuntary half smile played on her lips at the recalling of times gone yonder…and then looking up at him she saw him gaze at her with an inscrutable expression.) Look Yashji…I do understand your confusion, but please do not try to pursue what is only a mirage…you are unnecessarily setting yourself up for more hurt (her eyes softened as she said that)…..Anything else you wanted to clarify?"
"One final thing….Why won't you shake hands with me?"
"What? What kind of question is that?"
"I asked first, so I deserve an answer first."
"Stubborn, aren't you?"
“I am waiting.”
Mishti suddenly realized what he was doing. If this was not so important, she would have smiled at his slyness. Instead she spoke.
"I don't do that with anyone."
"What…shake hands???"
"Yes…or let any man touch me voluntarily. I owe that to the memory of the only man I ever loved. His touch was precious to me."
She said that without a flinch, looking straight at him, and with so much of concealed passion that Yash felt his whole being come alive. He now knew what being reborn meant.
"OK, Yashji…(collecting her purse) I hope I have been able to clear your doubts. I have to leave family is waiting for me. Also, now that I have a double Scindia wedding to plan, I better get on with it sooner."
It was Yash's turn to receive a shock.
"Excuse me!! Double wedding?? What are you saying?"
"Why? (smiling sweetly) Don't tell me…you don't know you are getting married? Good Day, Yashji!! I am sure you too may have someone to meet."
She beat a hasty retreat….rushing out before her runaway mouth did more damage…."Sheeshh, Mishti, what's wrong with you? You behaved like a jealous cat. You have to control your emotions around him…."
Her self-talk was cut short near the gate when she found a hand…his hand…barring her path.
"Wait, Aartiji…let me drop you home."
It had taken him a few seconds to recover from her parting shot and to register the look of annoyance…or was it jealousy…that had crossed her face when she had said that.
"No, no…please don't bother. I will get an auto. Here comes one. Goodbye, Yashji!!
Before he could say another word, she stopped the auto and jumped in, giving hurried instructions to the driver. As the auto started, she couldn't help looking back. He hadn't moved and was standing lazily staring at her….hands in pockets, head tilted a little, wearing an amused smirk on his face….yet it was his eyes that remained with her as she settled back…they had a glint in them that she couldn't fathom.

Yash had just stepped into his house when a pink bundle flew into his arms.
"Papa, papa…Where were you? I have something to tell you. It is very very important."
"What is it, princess? Mmm…you smell of chocolate."
"Hee…hee…don't do that, papa. It tickles. I was baking a cake with Shanti aunty."
"Really…a cake? For whom?"
"For my….(suddenly lowering her voice and whispering conspirationally into his ear)….shhshh, not here papa…someone might hear. It is a secret. Let's go to my room."
"OK," Yash whispered back.
In her room Yash put her on the bed and on her silent command went and locked the door.
"Alright…now no one can hear us. So, what's this all about? The cake…."
"It's for my new mumma…it's her birthday on Tuesday."
She stood on the bed, hands on her hips, and grinning impishly. Yash felt a lump form in his throat. At times she looked so much like Arpita.
"Hold on young lady….Whom are you talking about?"
"Oho papa…come, sit here."Taking a visibly loud deep breath, just like she had noticed dadima doing when she is about to explain something to Shanti aunty…and adopting her most grown-up tone, Palak began…."I saw that photo of that girl on your study table. I didn't like her…. So, I have decided…I mean I know who you should marry. She is beautiful…and very nice and I love her and only she will be my mumma. On Tuesday we will take the cake to her and we will po…poro…porp….."
"Yes…that….props to her. Chachu said when he asked Pari chachi to marry him, he gave her a ring….so, we will also need a ring. Tomorrow we will go and buy a nice ring for mumma. Ansh also wanted to come…but if he does, our secret will be out, so we both decided that…?"
"OK…stop right there, Palak." Taking her on his lap, he made her face him. "Look princess, these grown-up things are not that simple…I am sorry, I hadn't realized that you wanted a mumma so badly. Did Dadima say something to you? Because I have not yet….” He suddenly straightened up. “Ansh? What has Ansh got to do with this?"
"Uffo papa….He knows because we are going to props to his mumma. He likes you very much…so I told him he can call you papa too. We were talking on phone, and he said you promised to teach him karate. You are the best papa (hugging him)."
Yash hugged her automatically. His eyes were glistening and a soft smile played on his lips……"Mishti…you can't fight our destiny."

The family had just finished dinner when Yash spoke.
"Babuji….ma….I have something to tell you. I thought over it and I agree with you all. I am ready to marry."
The whole family almost leapt from their chairs and hugged him…with Gayatri shedding a few tears of joy on hearing the words she was waiting for so long.
"Congratulations, Yash. You have really made us very happy with your decision. I will call up Mr Joshi and give him the good news."
"Please don't do that bauji…I am not talking about Mr Joshi's daughter. It's someone else"
Everyone went silent, looking at him confusedly. As far as they knew, Yash had never shown any special interest in any girl. Then who was he talking about?
"Be clear, Yash….We don't understand. Whom do you have in mind?"
"Bauji….ma…..I cannot tell you that now. But you will have to trust me here. There is a valid reason that makes me unable at the moment to tell you who she is. However, I promise you will meet her in a few days. Please…just give me that much time."
Bauji agreed immediately. He knew his son well. If he had decided to marry a certain girl, then he needn't worry about her credentials. He trusted him to make the right choice. He put a hand on Yash's shoulders and gave his nod of acquiescence before walking way. But Gayatri stood rooted. She couldn't believe her dreams of Mansi as a bahu had just shattered. Her mind reeled with many questions…"Who is this girl anyway? Is she from a good family? Will she be able to take care of Palak? I hope Yash is not making any mistake." Aloud she only asked one question.
"Yash beta…are you sure?"
"I have never been so sure, ma."

Mishti put Ansh to sleep and came and sat with her father for their regular after-dinner talk, after sending the night nurse to have her meal. She told him about the day's events and about her meeting with Yash. Babuji took Mishti's hand in his and patted it.
"Aarti, I am so proud of you beta. You think of everyone's happiness. You have been selflessly taking care of us for years now. But don't you think you have put your life on hold long enough? Happiness is knocking at your doors finally….Why are you ignoring the obvious? Yash is a genuine person; I could see that….I am sure he will make his family understand. He still has feelings for you, Mishti."
"Please babuji….try to understand. Some things are just not meant to be (sighing inwardly at her helplessness at keeping babuji in dark about the real reason). The family likes that girl and so does Yashji. She is perfect in every sense for him and Palak and their family. If Yashji comes to know who I am, he might decide to hold my hand out of a past commitment….which might alienate him from his family. I can't wish that on him babuji."
"Alright Aarti, do whatever you feel right. I am always with you. But I do want to see my daughter settled down….OK?"
She nodded and got up, wishing him goodnight. The nurse took him away. Aarti switched off the lights and went to her room after checking on Ansh. Just as she had settled down at her daily night spot, the phone rang. It was him.
"Good evening Aartiji!! It seems you were right. I have some very happy news to share with you. I am getting married!!"
He stood leaning against his car and watched her keep the phone down slowly, throwing her head back against the wall, eyes shut tight in pain…..hands on her heart…a picture of abject resignation. He tightened his fists by his side.
"I am sorry, Mishti. You left me with no other option."


Chapter 10

When my eyes saw light, you were gone,
I felt my heart would never again see the sun.
But you, my love, walked with me, through the sadness,
and together we made memories even in darkness.
Don't keep yourself closed off,
I am here for you to open up and let go.
There is so much you can't forget,
Let me help you cope, we can heal together.
I hear the pain in your voice,
You need me now.
Don't worry, I'll move heaven and hell to get there.
You can't talk, you won't talk about it,
I understand.
Let go of your fears.
Lay your head down,
And believe that I will do anything to stop your tears.

"I am sorry, Mishti. You left me with no other option. I don't want to hurt you my love, but I have to do this. I need you to feel the depth of the love that you have so buried under. I have to make you face the barrier within yourself that you have built against us, our love….and trust us, trust me. I promise I will back off if that is what you really want. Just give me one sign that you don't want me to do that….one sign my love…and I will fight for both of us…till you trust me enough to let me in. "
He saw her open her eyes and wipe away her tears before getting up. He was about to turn back when she came back again and sat down….this time she had what looked like a small box in her hands. He looked on curiously as she kept the box on her lap and opened it. She put her hand in and very carefully picked up a bunch of flowers….dried flowers….roses…and very softly kissed them and then kept her cheek against them very gently, closing her eyes, smiling tenderly as she murmured something. Yash didn't realize that the moisture in his eyes had spilled over, as he smiled through the running droplets, "Thank you Mishti."
It was the rose…the single red rose on the dining table…that had finally alleviated the hesitant storm in him and brought clarity. As he lay now on his bed, looking at her picture in his mobile…the one he had clicked when she sat waiting for his call to finish in that cafe….he reflected on the past days…."You came back Mishti…just as you promised you would. You came back on the very day you left me. I am so thankful to the Almighty for keeping you safe all these years. Arpita was right. I always found you near me, because you were always there. (Caressing her face in the picture lovingly with his fingers, he smiled)…My stubborn, tough, spirited Mishti, you are so beautiful….so very beautiful. I wish I could just hold you in my arms and ease that pain I see in your eyes. (Sigh) Soon, my love…very soon. Good night Mishti!"

After seeing off Vinny at the airport, and promising her that she will personally handle all aspects of the Scindia weddings, Mishti went to the office. It was still early and the office was almost empty, so she went to the Flower Room first. The day's flowers had arrived. Here the flower arrangements for the events of the day were done by a group of girls. Mishti had herself trained a couple of them. She loved to be in this room surrounded by flowers. She picked up the schedule chart and checked out the day's events: a Corporate conference cum lunch, an award function, a private dinner at The Oberoi, and an engagement party. The conference/lunch had to be seen to first. They wanted the room decor in white and lavender, as such orchids and white lilies were already sent to the location. Now Mishti segregated light pink, peach, and white roses and a scatter of purple pansies and greens for the main conference table arrangements. She was almost done with the large central one and was putting the last fern in place when she felt his presence. Looking across the flowers, she saw him standing there leaning against the door staring at her with such intensity that she felt hypnotized.
Yash was equally mesmerized at seeing the angelic vision in front of him…dressed in deep blue, surrounded by flowers, hair open with the usual stray strands flying across, lips curved into a slight smile as she softly hummed while working magic with the flowers. He felt strange stirrings in him as he watched her, and had this insane desire to reach out and pluck her from the midst of the posy of flowers, hold her tightly, and kiss her senseless. He heard her gasp and drop the clipper she had in her hand and shook himself out of the reverie….straightening up.
"Good morning Aartiji!!...So you are real….for a moment I thought I had stepped into heaven and was looking at an angel or a fairy."
"Wha…I mean Good morning…I mean...can't you ever talk straight?" (No…no…Mishti, don't let him rattle you. Remember your resolution of last night? Mature…proper…aloof….yes, that one…that resolution.)
Stepping around the table, she walked up to him….assuming her most serious, professional manner.
"How can I help you, Mr Scindia? Oh…how remiss of me. Congratulations on your engagement! (with a smile that did not reach her eyes)…It is indeed splendid news. It was so thoughtful of you to call me last night."
"So you are pleased with the news!!"
"Of course, I am.” She pasted a big smile on her face, “Handling a double wedding in the Scindia family will be a feather in the cap for VM Events. I am going to personally see to it that everything goes perfectly well with your wedding."
"You are? Good…I have to say I am much relieved. So, why don't we start our wedding preparations with this?"
With that he brought up the bunch of red roses he was holding at his back and extended them to her. The unexpectedness of the gesture shook her so much that his choice of words escaped her conscious. Her eyes widened, hands fisted into the dupatta, lips quivered as she took a step back.
"Err…I..I cannot accept them, Yashji…I…"
"Can't accept them??? Of course you have to accept them…How else will you work on them?"
"Excuse me!….Work on them? What do you mean…work on them?"
"Exactly what I said…Why? Oh, did you think I got them for you? Oh no, Aartiji….They are for my fiancee…(a pause and then…)….Mishti….(as she was about to protest)…I mean Mishti taught me the significance of red roses…that they signify love and passion…that they are supposed to be given to the one person who is closest to the heart…the only one who can brighten up one's dull life. Do you know she brought me red roses daily in the hospital? And I would give her one back…I am sure she threw them away once out of the hospital. I would….."
"No she didn't."
She looked indignant…no angry…yes, definitely angry…her nose was going red…and her eyes reflected hurt and outrage at the same time. (God, Mishti…you are going to be the death of me. Life is going to be a continuous thrill with you, my love.).
"You don't know that."
"I know it."
"No…you don't."
"Yes, I do."
"How would you know it?"
"I know it because I kept them…."
She stopped and turned halfway to the table, closing her eyes. She had done it…again. Let him get under her skin….
"I mean I kept them for her in a box she gave me for safekeeping. She was so careless that she trusted only me to take care of her personal belongings. Anyway, coming back to the matter at hand…what do you want me to do with the flowers? Do you want me to make a hand bouquet or a stand-up one or with any other special background? Please hurry up…I have other matters to attend to."
Mishti stopped to take a breath and glanced sideways at him from under her lashes…Darn it, no one has the right to look so handsome!! Especially when the some one is so out to get her. Alright, Mr Scindia…you want war…you'll get war. Your Mishti won't back of. She'll make sure you see Aarti…feel Aarti….and believe Aarti…till you are certain  that I am Aarti….so there...
Leaning against the wall, legs crossed, hands in pockets, Yash had thoroughly enjoyed her discomfiture along with her vain attempt at covering up the faux pax.
"Oh…make it as you wish. I am sure you'll know what appeals a girl. I am a bit rusty on that account. But now that I am in, I am going to make her the happiest girl in the world…I am going to show her how much she means to me…I am going to shower her with flower petals and then I am going to remove those petals one by one with my…..(at the sound of a dropping scissor this time)….What happened, Aartiji? Am I bothering you with my love talk?"
"Yes…you are….” She hissed through clenched teeth, keeping her back to him as she furiously pulled the flowers out of the paper binding. “Would you please wait in the office, I'll join….sss…ouch….."
He leapt up from his relaxed position as he heard her soft cry of pain. She was holding on to her right middle finger from where blood oozed out from the thorn prick. He gently extricated her other hand from the injured one and pressed his handkerchief on it and then walked her to the corner water basin. He washed the finger tenderly, concern writ large on his face. Mishti just stared at him….numb. His one touch had erased all the pain. She didn't even remember what she told him about other men touching her. But he did…and he touched her now with full authority and he acknowledged her silent acceptance. He was not going to belittle her feelings by making her conscious about this very blatant blunder on her part. He cherished the first touch of her hand after years as he gently held it….savored its familiarity….the connection of it with his heart.
"Where is the first aid box, Aartiji?"
"In my office."
"Hmm…c'mon...this needs a Band-Aid."
"It's OK….I am fine. This is routine. When you work with flowers, you are bound to be pricked at times."
He just gave her a stern look that shut her. In the office, he put antiseptic and rounded a strip of Band-Aid on the prick.
"You don't have to do the flowers. I won't need them anymore."
"No, no…I am fine…(at his look)…OK, I'll just go and instruct one of the girls."

Mishti went back to the Flower room. The girls had arrived and had begun their work. She instructed them about the day and then about the red roses. Before leaving the room, she picked one rose and hid it under her dupatta. When she walked back into the office, she found Neema introducing Yashji to Mr Pavan Lamba, MD of CDL Developers, the company that was hosting the day's conference. He was the eldest son of the owner…six-feet tall, thin as a beanpole, passably good looking, and very fair….and also a person who was totally smitten with Mishti…a fact everyone at VM offices knew of, considering the baseless reasons with which he always landed there to meet her. On seeing her, his face went all red with excitement as he jumped up and crossed the distance to her in no time. Folding his hands, he beamed the widest smile.
"Hello, Aartiji….namaste ji!! There you are. How are you? Aha….You look as lovely as always. I haven't seen you in such a long time…."
Neema rolled her eyes; Dharmesh, who had followed Aarti with some files, walked right back out, shaking his head…And Yash!!…Well…he looked, as if he would gladly hold the man by the scruff of his neck and throw him out of the window. Only Mishti remained unmoved and nonchalant as she walked toward her desk.
"Don't be so melodramatic, Mr Lamba. We met last Friday only. Please have a seat. I hope the arrangements at the event are up to the mark."
Sitting at her desk, Mishti quietly slipped the rose in the lower drawer.
"Of course…they are. How can anything done by you be faulted? You are perfect…hee…hee...I mean the arrangements are perfect. I was on my way to pick up the Chief Guest and had some time on hands, so I thought I should meet you and invite you to dinner."
"Dinner? Why?"
Mishti sneaked a glance at Yashji. He was literally glowering at Pavan Lamba.
"My mother asked me to talk to you regarding my sister Shilpa's marriage arrangements. Once she gets married, I can…hee….hee….go ahead with mine. So, I thought we…."
"She is not available."
Both Mishti and Pavan jerked their heads at the direction of the voice. Neema looked up from whatever she was doing at her computer…which was nothing other than trying hard to control her laughter. A flustered Pavan spoke up.
"What? Whatever do you mean?"
Yash had stood up. He crossed his arms and looked pointedly at Pavan.
"You heard me. She is busy with our wedding arrangements….that is, mine and my brother's."
"Oh…that's OK. Aartiji can always take time out. She has enough staff working for her. Neemaji here is very proficient."
"Mr Lamba…I won't repeat this again. Aartiji here is not available for any other wedding till ours is over. She will be busy from this moment till she is through with my honeymoon. Is that understood? In fact I am taking her out now to help me buy my fiancee's engagement ring."
"If you two distinguished gentlemen are done, may I say something?"
Both the men watched fascinated as the lady who spoke the words arose slowly, eyes flashing with anger, yet trying to be as civil as possible. Mishti was furious at the verbal bickering going on in her office at her expense.
"Mr Lamba…I have already spoken with your mother. Your sister's wedding is six months away. We have enough time to discuss the matter later. Now if I am not wrong, you must be getting late for your appointment. Have a nice day Mr Lamba."
"Of course…Thank you for reminding me. You are so sweet to be so concerned about me. I will see you soon, Aartiji. Goodbye!!!"
With that Pavan Lamba saw himself out of the office without even acknowledging Yash Scindia. Before Aarti could turn around and give a piece of her mind to Yash, Neema burst out laughing loudly.
"I Mrs D…so sorry. Do you even realize how you torture the poor man? I am sorry, Mr Scindia…for my behavior, but I can't help it…Did you notice how his cheeks and ears become deep red whenever Mrs D looks at him?"
Yash couldn't help smile at that and looked sheepishly at Mishti who sat down with a deep sigh.
"Neema, let Mr Lamba be and please see if Mr Scindia's bouquet is ready so that he can leave."
"One minute Aartiji….I was serious about going to the jewelers for the ring. I wish you to help me buy it…Please!!"
Neema was the one who spoke.
"I am sorry Mr Scindia. Both of us have to meet your parents at your house in another half hour with the Wedding card samples and some suggestions for invitation accompaniments."
"Fine….You both can come with me, and after this is over we shall go for ring shopping."
Neema went to get the samples. Yash and Mishti walked to the parking lot. She was still angry with him for taking her for granted.
"I am not taking you for granted…you know that, don't you? (So now he can read her mind…Mishti kept quiet)….It's just that I trust only you to get me through this. You are Mishti's sister. If you support me and help me, I will feel Mishti is looking over me. Please Aartiji….I need you."
Mishti stopped and looked at him for a long time and then nodded.

In Scindia Mansion, Yash went up to get Palak, as Aarti and Neema settled down with Gayatri and another old lady. Mr Suraj Pratap Scindia was detained for an urgent meeting.
"Ammaji, this is Mrs Aarti Dubey and her secretary Neema Parekh. They are taking care of Prateek and Yash's wedding arrangements. (Turning to the duo)….This is my mother-in-law, Mrs Maya Scindia….Prateek and Yash's daadima."
Aarti and Neema did namaste and were about to present the cards when daadima spoke.
"She is married? Why is she not wearing sindoor or mangalsutra?"
"Err…she is a widow, ammaji."
"What? Have you gone mad Gayatri? We can't have a widow handle such an auspicious occasion. Even the shadow of a widow is considered bad luck, and you have asked her to come so close to my grandsons…to arrange their weddings. It’s preposterous. Do you want our children's lives to be ruined?” She turned to Aarti, “You woman….you leave…now!!! I shall not allow you to even step into this house. We will get someone else to manage the wedding."
Aarti's eyes glistened with tears as she turned toward the exit. Suddenly she felt someone hold her hand from behind.
To be continued.........

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