“The S is for Sunaina…that’s my name. But everyone calls me Naina. Now, if we have got that clear, may I know what brings you here…Sir?” She enjoyed a moment of triumph as he frowned at her term of address. She knew what was coming thereafter. She braced herself for the inevitable, certain that his subsequent words would be razor sharp.
He didn’t disappoint. “You deceived me the other night. What you did makes you an imposter, Ma’am. But then why am I not surprised? Women can be so two faced. Is this the sort of guidance you impart the children here? Does my grandmother know the sort of person she has entrusted this school with? Why did you lie about who you were?” He folded his arms across his chest and glowered at her.
Naina almost asked him to get out…The man was impossibly opinionated and cantankerous and a sexist. One need not be a rocket scientist to realize that he had a thing against women. Given another time, another place, she would have directed the venom right back at him. But this was a sacred place…this was her school. So, she took a deep breath, crossed her fingers on the desk, and spoke slowly as if he was having an old-man moment and was slow to follow the conversation, “If you have finished with your accusations Colonel, may I speak? Believe me I had no intentions to misguide you. I had a perfect reason to be in Rawin Mahal that night. You surprised me with your sudden appearance. So, I…”
“Really? You said you were a maid.”
“Oh no, I didn’t.”
“No Colonel, I didn’t. You just assumed I was.”
“And you never bothered to correct me. Why?”
“I had my reasons.”
“Reasons? What possible reasons can there be for a lady of your position, a school principal, to work as a maid? Not only that, you didn’t have the courtesy next morning to let me know that you were leaving. My daughter was asking for you…and I had nothing to tell her. The staff refused to say anything, except that you were a temporary. If you do not possess basic courtesies yourself, how do you teach the children here? Teachers are supposed to be role models….Right?”
The mention about Tanu got Naina to rein in her cutting response, “Tanu was asking for me? Oh dear! Actually I went up to say goodbye, but she was still sleeping, so I left. I had an important meeting of Education Board to attend.”
She paused. He continued to stare at her penetratingly. Refusing to be intimidated, she met his gaze with a level one of her own and continued, “That night I was helping out a friend who was supposed to be in-charge of Housekeeping of the mahal, but was taken ill at the last moment. As you know the staff was on leave, so I volunteered. No big deal. When you took it for granted that I was the maid, I went along with it because I didn’t want my friend to be put in an awkward position. Also, you and your daughter were tired. Someone had to get you and Tanu settled in till the staff arrived, so I did. If you had known who I was, you might not have let me stay back. Next day when the staff arrived, you were in the gym. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
He gave her a long, enigmatic look after she finished, clearly evaluating the sincerity of her words, and then nodded, “I accept your explanation. I apologize.”
That’s it? He jumps to conclusions and accuses her, that too in her office, and then just calmly says “I apologize”? Good gracious! What a condescending man!
Naina bristled to give him a piece of her mind, but curbed her urge and said politely, “What can I do for you
He put his arms on the table, “I have come for Tanu’s admission.”
Naina was perplexed, “You want Tanu to attend school on your holiday?”
“Holiday? Who said we are on a holiday? I have shifted base to Palampur.”
“Shifted base? Oh…you mean you are posted here.”
“No. I have shifted here permanently. I took an early release from army. I am no more part of the defense organization.”
“Why? What happened?” The questions were out before she realized, and instantly knew she had hit a raw nerve.
His eyes darkened…in anger at her intrusion, but all Naina saw were flecks of raw pain behind them. This man had suffered…and she was not thinking of his physical injuries. She vaguely remembered Beeji mentioning he was a highly decorated soldier and had a bright future in the army. What happened for him to leave all that? For the first time there was a crack in Naina’s composure, as she stared at him, trying to see behind the bitter, angry man. She had never let a man get through the barriers she had set up all these years. However, she had reacted unnaturally to the man sitting in front on the two occasions she had met him. He had broken right through her congenial veneer and made her react contrary to how she had tutored herself to become.
“My personal life is not up for gossip columns, Ma’am. Now isn’t there any form that I have to fill for the admission?” His curt and now-familiar rude response broke through her reverie.
“I am sorry Colonel. I didn’t mean to pry. I’ll arrange for someone to help you with the formalities. You did say she was three. Has she completed 3 years?”
“Not yet. Her birthday is next month. Why? Is that an issue?”
“Oh no, not at all. We do run a preschool playgroup class for children from 2 to 3 years.”
“Tanu is too shy and too quiet…hardly speaks. I want her to come here for a few hours daily, just so she opens up in the company of other children and feels at ease in a sociable setting. I…I want her to become more interactive, like any other child.” She was startled to see those dark eyes melting to softness as he spoke of his daughter and there was something else...a guilt maybe and probably a certain degree of helplessness. It made her want to reach out and keep a reassuring hand on his. Naina shook her head….God, what a crazy thought!
“I’ll place her in playgroup to start with. After the first term, when she has completed three, she will be upgraded to Nursery. I am sure Tanu will be happy here. I wish you had brought her. Saturdays are off days. I could have shown her around.”
“She is here.”
“What? Where is she?”
“She is sitting out in the corridor.”
“You left her outside all this while? All by herself? In a new place? What were you thinking?” Naina was already getting up and rushing out. She didn’t wait to see his shocked expression at her visible anger.
Outside the office, Naina looked at the length of the empty corridor to find a little pink form huddled over a chair, not moving. She hurried to the child and knelt in front of her, “Tanu!”
She was gripping a small sketch book in her hand and staring at its colorful cover. She looked fearful as she looked up…and then Naina was rewarded with a tremulous smile. Before she could say anything, two little hands crept around her neck as Tanu slid into her arms, her lips quivering into silent sobs as she buried her face into Naina’s neck.
Naina rubbed her hands up and down her small back, calming her in a soothing voice, “Hush darling! It’s OK. There’s nothing to be scared of. See, I am here. Papa is also here.” She glanced around at the insensitive parent with a disapproving glare. At the reproach in her look, he managed to look sheepish. Shifting his stick from one hand to another, he tried to justify, “Students are not supposed to enter the principal’s office till they are summoned, so I….”
Naina didn’t raise her voice at all, but her tone changed, “Summoned? This is a kindergarten Col Rathore, not a military academy that I’ll summon the students when I deem fit. In this place, they are free to come and go as they please. They follow the rules because they understand why they have to and not because they are ordered to. There’s a thin line between disciplining and insensitivity, which you obviously are not aware of.”
“You don’t have to be personal.”
“Does everything have to be weighed on a personal-impersonal balance with you? This is not about you, but about Tanu.”
Hearing her name Tanu sniffled and raised her head from the comfort of the warmth and fragrance of the nice aunty. Tanu liked this pretty aunty. She liked how when she smiled her eyes twinkled and a small dimple appeared in her chin. One day she will put her finger and feel that dimple. She liked how she made her laugh that night. She was fun. She was warm. When she had woken up, she had gone looking for her, but she was gone. Papa was very upset with aunty when he saw her crying. She didn’t want him to be angry so she didn’t ask about aunty again. But she is here now. And all will be well.
Naina wiped Tanu’s tears and said gently, “Come, I’ll show you your school. Want to play with rabbits?”
Tanu’s eyes grew wide as she forgot how scared she was minutes earlier and spoke, “Rabbits? Real rabbits?”
“Yes sweetheart, real rabbits. Will you wait a moment? I have to speak to another aunty. Oh, there she is.” She stood up and faced a woman about her age, “There you are Nancy. Where were you? I thought you were in your office. Here, meet Col Rathore and his daughter Tanushri. Please help him fill the admission form for playgroup. Colonel, this is Nancy Peters, the vice principal.”
Nancy, who was looking a little harried as she was walking down, beamed a smile, “Good afternoon Sir! Hello Tanushri. Welcome to Happy Hours.” She then turned to Naina, “I am sorry Ma’am. Those toys were delivered and I had to take the men to the playroom for installation. Please come with me, Sir.”
As Raj completed the formalities, Naina took Tanu all around the school, pointing out the playgrounds, the flowerbeds, the classrooms, and then in the end to the mini-zoo that had rabbits, a few varieties of birds, and tortoises. That’s where Raj found them.
They were both sitting cross-legged, facing each other, on the lawn. Naina had a rabbit on her lap whom Tanu was petting. He was about to step forward when he saw an old man in dhoti/kurta bring over a small rabbit and hand it to Naina.
“Madamji, this one was born this morning.”
“Thank you Gopalji. Give him to me and take this one.”
“Err, madamji…it’s a girl.”
“Really! Did you hear that Tanu? She came to us on the same day that you did. That makes this little baby yours. Here, hold it.”
Tanu trembled as she held the tiny bundle in her arms, and whispered, “Is she mine? All mine?”
“Yes, she is. Would you like to name her?”
“Name?’ she looked nonplussed and then suddenly noticed her father, “Papa…name?”
Naina looked up and a lump formed in her throat when she gazed at those dark eyes, finding them piercing into her very soul. She shivered…Something desolate washed over his face for a fleeting moment, although he hid it almost the instant she noted. The lump in her throat wouldn’t go away…it stayed. His voice was hoarse as he spoke, “She is like a little ball of fur. How about Furry?
Naina blinked back the moisture as Tanu stared ecstatically at her father and whispered, “Furry.” Naina couldn’t decide whether Tanu’s sunny smile was because she had a name for the rabbit or because it was her father who suggested it. That was the moment inspiration struck. She turned to Tanu, “Sweetie, you play with Furry for awhile. I have something important to talk to your papa.” Tanu nodded without looking up.
Naina got ready to get up and found a large hand extended in front of her. She looked at him…he wore a deadpan expression. She shook her head and declined, getting up herself to walk a few paces away. Turning toward him, she ignored the puzzled look in his eyes and said, “Colonel, Tanu needs to be with other kids as well as with you.”
“With me? Whatever do you mean? She is always with me.”
“No, no…I didn’t meant that. Of course, you are always present physically…now.”
“What do you mean by now?” He scowled.
Naina leveled her gaze at him, “Exactly what I am saying. I am guessing you haven’t been in her life for long…at least not 24x7 as a parent should be. No please…hear me out….” She raised her hand as he started to protest. “I don’t want to know the details. All I want is for you to be an active participant in her life to draw her out of her shell.”
He gritted out his frustration, “Be specific Ma’am. I assume you have a long list of my parental shortcomings.”
“No Colonel. On the contrary, whatever little I have seen, I must say you are a wonderful father. I don’t have to go farther than Tanu’s trustful eyes when she looks at you to know that. It’s just that I sense a communication gap here. You two share a very strong silent vibe. However, one has to converse with children and play with them and answer their never-ending queries. OK…let me put it another way. As a commanding officer of your unit, did you just issue orders and sit back in your room or tent or did you make it a point to interact with your men?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me.” Naina crossed her arms and waited.
He thrust his free hand into his trouser pocket and glanced at an absorbed Tanu, who was now softly crooning to Furry, and said, “When we are in posts, it’s a lonely life. It’s the moral duty of a CO to ensure that his jawans will man the posts knowing that his officers stand with them every which way. To do that one has to spend time with them, drink with them, share meals with them, and listen to them speak about their families. Keeping their morale high is most imperative.”
“In other words, be a father-figure to them.” He nodded without realizing and then stood mesmerized as a slow smile spread across her face and she angled her face to one side. He couldn’t take his eyes off the little dimple that formed in her chin.
“Papa, can we take Furry home?” He jerked his head out of the trance and stared at his daughter. His chest tightened at seeing the little face agog with excitement and joy. He hadn’t heard her string together so many words as today. In face he couldn’t remember her speaking in sentences at all…only monosyllables.
He ran the back of her hand down her cheek in a caress and said, “You will have to take permission from your teacher Tanu.”
Tanu looked at Naina, “May I take her home?”
Bending at the knees, she said, “Of course Tanu. I told you she is yours. I know you will take good care of her. Tell you what, I’ll ask Gopal dadu to go and make a little home for Furry in the evening.”
“Will you also come?”
“I….” Naina stopped. She didn’t want to raise Tanu’s hopes. How could she invite herself? She had no idea what the Colonel felt about her talk just now. Given his views regarding women, he might have thought her to be patronizing. He didn’t particularly like her…of that she was sure.
She was saved from answering as he turned toward her and spoke in his most formal manner, “Thank you for Furry. Please come and have dinner with us tonight.” He saw her hesitate and rushed on, “It will make Tanu happy and allow me to make amends for thinking you a maid. And Ma’am, I got your point. For Tanu to come out of her shell, I’ll do anything. I’ll see you in the evening then. Please bring your family also. I’ll look forward to meeting Mr Bhatia.”
“Well, he too wanted to meet you. He has some questions on soldiering and he hopes to get them answered by you.”
“Of course. I’ll be happy to oblige.”
“I have to warn you though. He can get quite persistent and go overboard with his enthusiasm. For instance, he might ask you to give a demo on crawling with a rifle.”
“I beg your pardon!!” He looked positively flabbergasted.
Naina grinned, “Relax Colonel. You don’t have to do that. I am talking of my six-year-old son. He is fascinated with soldiers.”
The corner of his mouth twitched, “Well then. Bring him. If I can face a barrage of bullets, I suppose I can handle a few questions from a child.”
“Famous last words Colonel. Wait till you meet Adi first.” Naina turned as she heard Nancy call out from the window, “Ma’am, there’s a phone call.”
“I’ll be right there Nancy. Please keep it on hold.” She bent and kissed Tanu’s forehead and turned to Raj, “Thank you for the invitation. May I bring my aunt? I would like to tell you who she is, but let’s keep it a surprise.” She smiled and was half way across the lawn when she heard him call her, “What about senior Mr Bhatia?”
She stiffened and turned. He saw the cheerfulness replaced by a dark shadow, “There isn’t one.”
Naina stopped the jeep in the portico and turned to her aunt, “You and Adi go ahead, Beeji. I’ll park the jeep and come in a few minutes. I have a call to make.” She turned to her son, “Adi….”
“Uffo mumma…I know. I’ll wish uncle and say hello to princess. I am a big boy. I know my manners. Right beeji?” He jumped down with a small gift packet. There was no way he was going to meet a princess without a gift.
“Absolutely right, Adi. Naina, come soon.”
“I will Beeji. Here, take the kheer.” She passed on the casserole.
“Oops! I nearly forgot. Raj loves my kheer.” She paused, “You really didn’t tell him. He doesn’t know that I am coming.”
“No Beeji. I didn’t. Now go and give your surprise.”
Naina parked the jeep and pressed the buttons on her cell phone.
“Guptaji, are the school uniforms for the orphanage children ready? I hope you remember that their classes begin next week.”
“They are almost ready madamji. I am expecting the final batch of shirts tonight. I’ll get them delivered tomorrow.”
“Right. Thank you. I shall be speaking to you about the uniforms of the staff of both the Homes sometime next week. How is your grandmother now?”
“She has come back home from the hospital and is much better. I can never thank you enough for having her evacuated to Shimla so fast.”
“I didn’t do anything Guptaji. Ranima’s kindness saved the day. She was the one who arranged for her chopper. OK then Guptaji…I’ll drop in tomorrow at the orphanage and take a stock of the uniforms. Goodnight!”
Naina switched off the phone, adjusted her dupatta over the black and red anarkali suit, and reached out for the keys from the ignition. Still preoccupied, she stepped down, and her foot landed on a loose stone. Her sandal heels twisted and she began to topple back. She braced herself for an embarrassing fall when her back encountered a hard chest and an arm crept around her waist, holding her firmly, “Easy Naina. I got you.”
To be continued…………..