“I’ll be in Shimla to receive you nanisa.”
“You don’t have to come Raj. Puran Singh, my secretary, is accompanying me from Delhi. We’ll just be changing choppers in Shimla. There’s no way I am going to waste a minute going through inane formalities over there when I am dying to hold my little Tanu. But you distract me…I asked you something. How was the dinner? What do you think of Naina? She is lovely, isn’t she?”
Raj closed his eyes, “Nanisa, it was a formal affair. I wanted to thank the lady as well as convey her my apologies. That’s all. You know me….I don’t go around forming opinions about everyone I meet. But I loved spending time with Beeji and Aditya. That kid is intelligent and sensibly inquisitive.”
“Hmm! I see. Right then Raj…I’ll see you in a week. Give my love to my granddaughter.”
“Goodbye naanisa! You take care. Call me before your flight.”
Raj kept the phone on the balustrade and stared out at the night from the balcony of his suite. “She is lovely, isn’t she?” Naanisa’s words played in his mind. Damnation! Ever since he had landed here, everything and everyone has been connected with her. This was crazy. He didn’t need a woman to wreak havoc in his life…not again. Yet he couldn’t get the dewy-eyed woman’s indignant look out of his mind as he wished her goodnight. As if she was not very happy with the idea of spending few hours in his company…and his gut feeling told him that it was nothing to do with him and yet a lot to do with him. He couldn’t shake off the momentary spark of fear he had seen in her eyes when she thought he attacked her. He had seen that emotion many a times during his service life. To a veteran soldier, that demon was a familiar sight…and for a few seconds he had seen her staring at one. Her split-second volte-face had surprised him. One moment she was scared…and the next grinning away and teasing him. It didn’t make any sense. She was an enigma…a puzzle with missing pieces…and he wanted to find them. That alone surprised him. He was going to break a rule that he had followed diligently till now...A chink was made in his armor and he wanted to follow it to the end.
As if on cue his phone rang. He checked the time. It was 11:14 pm. Who could be calling at this hour?
“Raj…it’s me, Naina.”
“Naina? Is everything OK?”
“Yes. No. I mean…look, why I called this late at night is…Oh my God, I didn’t realize it’s past eleven. I am sorry…I…”
“Naina…it’s OK. I was awake. Now what’s this all about?”
“Look, Beeji was just being Beeji. She didn’t realize I may be imposing on you. No, no…please listen. I know we began on wrong foot. You were being nice and noble and gallant when you invited us over for dinner because you wanted to make amends. I appreciate the gesture…really, I do. However, that should have been it. Neither you nor I planned for making the Kangra trip together. So…”
“So…I say we stick to our individual plans and…”
“…you go your way and I go mine.”
“Naina!! Shut Up.”
“What? What did you just say?” He heard her spluttering and grinned.
“You heard me. If you think I am going to defy Beeji, then you are mistaken. I respect her too much. Be ready at eight. Goodnight!”
He switched off the phone and chuckled. It felt good to have the last word.
Naina stared at her phone. The man was insufferable. She had wanted to walk away from this arrangement and keep on her side of the fence, as she always did so conscientiously. But he had to go and play the bully. Something about him unnerved her…as if she was on a dangerous territory….which was ridiculous. She took a deep breath and decided she would stick to what she meant to do anyways…and if he found her day’s schedule to be a hurdle in his plans, then that’s just too bad. She won’t let him get to her. Having calmed herself, she slipped into her bed and was asleep in no time.
Next morning she woke up early and finished the last bit of baking. She heard Beeji moving about and then peep in, “Good morning Naina. Finished the cakes? Good. Get the tea outside. We’ll have it there. It’s a beautiful morning.”
“Good morning beeji. I’ll be out in a few minutes. The tea is ready.”
She went out to find beeji checking out her flower beds. She took great pride in her garden. Tending personally to her flowers was her passion post retirement. They sat on the porch steps with their cups.
“The saplings are out on time, beeji. With the new landscaping, you are bound to win this year’s Best Garden prize as well in the annual competition.”
“You are such a biased darling, Naina.” She smiled, looking pleased, “I am excited about the central island. I have planted five shades of pansies in a pattern of my own making. Once the flowers come out, this place will look like paradise.”
“Absolutely. You know beeji, this may sound weird, but I rather like this current look of the garden the most. Everything is green…in various shades of it. The colors of fresh expectancy…of something beautiful to come. Once the flowers come, you know the autumn will follow, sooner or later. But now....now you hear the whispers of spring through the leaves as the breeze blows through them gently.”
Beeji kept her cup and turned to give a hug to Naina, “This is what I love about you the most, my child…this cheerful mind-set, full of hope and optimism. I am so proud of you. You amaze me with your strength, because I know in your place no one else could have made it.”
Naina laid her head on her chest and whispered, “I couldn’t have made it without you beeji. I remember your words when I had just come to you. You had said, ‘Naina, whether you want to live with happiness or not is something you have to decide. You can move on and make a new life and new memories or you can give up on life and let grief consume you.’ ” You and Adi were the miracle that saved me from plunging to the rock bottom and allowed me to choose wings instead.”
“Oh Naina…I look at you and I know why God didn’t plan a family for me in my youth. It’s because He planned to send you to me in His own good time. Today I am a proud mother and grandmother because of you. When you came, spring came back into my life.” She lifted Naina’s chin and looked into her eyes, “I have a feeling these whispers of spring that you talk about will bring many shades of color in your life this year. Just promise me one thing.”
“That when the colors surround you, you won’t turn your back, but embrace them.”
Naina laughed and hugged her beeji tightly, “I am always happy beeji. Have you ever seen me otherwise? I am not the one to let my past predict my son’s future as well as mine.” She kissed beeji on the cheek and got up, “I better go and get ready before Col Rathore comes, otherwise he will take a sadistic pleasure in nagging me for my tardiness through the entire journey to Kangra and back. Sheesh…he is such a grouch, beeji.”
“C’mon Naina…since when have you become judgmental? Raj is the not only the most upright and the most decent man I have ever known but also the most fun-loving one. You will say the same thing when you get to know him better.”
“Fun loving? Are we talking of the same man? In any case, I have no intention to know him better, beeji. He has this chip on his shoulder against women, and I don’t like it.”
Beeji sighed, “He is hurting Naina…and he is angry as well.” She arose and looked speculatively at the beautiful girl she took in as her daughter; taking a decision she said, “Life hasn’t been fair to him. His wife turned her back when he needed her the most. She asked for a divorce instead. He didn’t want to tie her down against her wishes, so he agreed and let her go.”
“She left Tanu?” Naina was stunned with this bit of information. What kind of woman leaves her child?
“Yes. She did. She…” Beeji couldn’t finish as Adi came out rubbing his eyes and climbed on to Naina’s lap. This was one time of the day, he still felt like being a baby and bask in the warmth of his mother’s arms. Naina nodded at beeji and went inside, holding him and talking to him in her soothing, gentle voice. Tanu was spending the day with Adi and beeji, and Adi had made big plans before he finally slept the previous night.
The bell rang at exactly five minutes to eight. Adi ran and opened the door, “Good morning Raj Uncle! Hello Tanu! Please come in.”
Raj stepped inside after wishing Adi and ruffling his hair, as Tanu gave a huge smile to Adi and hugged him. Adi blushed and tentatively patted Tanu’s back. Tanu pulled him down and whispered in his ear, “Adi bhaiya, I have brought Furry. She is in the car. Let’s get her.” They ran out as beeji came and embraced Raj, “Welcome beta! Will you like a cup of tea?”
“No, thanks beeji. I have had my breakfast. Is Naina ready? We need to leave.”
“Good morning Raj.” He spun around and took in the vision in pink and white anarkali suit. Her beauty was all there….in her simplicity, in her sparkling eyes, in the flowing hair, in her radiant persona graced with an inherent sophistication that was exquisite and naive at the same time.
Raj realized he had been staring when he heard beeji cough and Naina ask with a frown, “What? Is something there on my face?” She patted her cheeks.
“No. It’s perfect….I mean a very good morning to you too.” Suddenly his tone changed and his voice was all rough and brusque, “Are you ready? Or do you have some last-minute makeup to apply?”
Naina rolled her eyes and looked at beeji with an “I told you so” look. She turned her gaze at Raj, batted her eyelids, and then said in a saccharine-sweet tone, “Why Colonel? Does my dull appearance disappoint you? Well, nothing can be done about it. This is me.” She widened her eyes with a hopeful look, “You can still change your mind and…”
Beeji murmured something about seeing to the children and went out as Raj tapped his stick impatiently and mumbled gruffly, “There is nothing dull about you Ma’am, I can assure you…Now, if we are done discussing your appearance, should we make a move? I don’t wish to be late for my appointment.”
Naina waved her hand toward the exit, “You go ahead then. I have some baskets to get from the kitchen. I’ll join you in a jiffy”
“What baskets? We are going for official visits, not a picnic.”
Naina tossed her hair behind and started walking toward the kitchen, “Oh, please don’t work up a wrinkle in your starched shirt and stiff back Raj. You are the last person I’d go on a picnic with.” She paused at the door and turned with a smile, “After all picnics are supposed to be fun, and not a day out practicing in a planned-out drill.”
As she disappeared into the kitchen, Raj let his lips curve into a smile as he shook his head, “And she calls herself dull.”
He leant against the car with folded hands as he looked at beeji sitting with the kids on the sunny lawn, with Furry between them. The door opened and Naina came out balancing three baskets and a file folder in her hand. Adi ran to help her, with Tanu following
“Would you please open the trunk?” Naina called out to Raj.
“What’s in them?” He questioned as he pulled the lever for the trunk.
Beeji answered him, “They are cakes, Raj. Chocolate cakes, to be precise. Naina’s specials. She always carries them, along with other tidbits to the Homes. The kids of the orphanage wait for this treat every month, as do the old people of the ashram. They love Naina’s homemade cakes.”
Raj’s eyes softened as he observed Naina with an inscrutable expression. She was now kneeling down and held Adi and Tanu in her arms, passing instructions for the day in her soft voice. She kissed them and stood up, “Bye sweeties. I’ll see you in the evening. Have fun.”
The kids ran to hug Raj as Naina waved at beeji and got in the car. Raj got in and looked at her, “Tie up your seat belt.”
“What? Now you are going to be difficult for this too?” He sounded exasperated.
“What do you mean? You are saying as if I am perpetually difficult with you.” She pouted with a scowl.
He sighed, “I didn’t mean it like that Naina. But rules are rules.”
“I don’t like seat belts, Raj. Let’s just leave it at that.” She turned to him with a smile, “Take it as my trust in your driving skills.”
He shook his head and started the engine. They traveled for a few minutes in silence, with Naina gazing out of the window. Suddenly she turned toward him, “Take the turn on the left from the next crossing.”
“But Naina, this bypass goes straight. I know the route.”
“I know you do. But we are making a detour to Chamunda Devi temple first.”
“No Naina. Not today. You can go to the temple some other day. I’ll be late for my appointment.”
“Fine then. Drop me at the next bus stop. I’ll take a bus.”
“For the love of God Naina, you…,” his jaw tightened in anger.
“Exactly…for the love of God.” She turned to him with a twinkle in her eyes.
To be continued………