The long-forgotten chill hit her to the bones when she found herself imprisoned against a man’s body. She reacted instinctively. “Let me go. Oh God! Let me go…let me go.” She struggled with a rising panic and pushed the arm away forcefully, elbowing his stomach hard in a desperate bid to get away. She was suddenly loose. She had scampered away toward the bonnet when she heard him, “For God’s sake! What’s wrong with you?” She spun around to find Raj rubbing a hand over his midriff and bending to pick up his walking stick.
She rushed back to pick it up, “Oh my God! It was you. I am so sorry. Here let me do it for you.”
“Leave it Ma’am. I am not an invalid. I can take care of myself.” He chided brusquely.
Raj straightened and looked her way to find her staring away from him. All the words of rebuke died in his tongue as he stared at her. Her haunted, anguished, pain-filled countenance arrested whatever he was going to say. He let out a ragged breath and suddenly recalled the first time he saw her. She had looked petrified then too, and had pushed him away. What makes her react so violently to his touch?
Raj took a step forward and raised his hand, only to drop it. “Ma’am,” he spoke softly, “Are you alright?”
She blinked and lifted her gaze to his; her beautiful eyes fringed with heavy lashes were shiny as she fought to gain control. The dancing lights in the inky depths were mesmerizing. Raj muttered a soft oath under his breath and deliberately broke off his line of thought…even as his mind, the rational part, signaled an alarm louder than the temple bells. She took a deep breath and turned.
“Naina.” She held out her hand, “My name is Naina, and I am not a politician.”
“What?” He stared fascinated at the slow smile that spread across her face, which rapidly turned into a grin.
“You called me Naina when you rescued me. I think I find that better than the 'Ma’am.' The way you say
Ma’am makes me feel like a politician with a manifesto. And since we are going to be socially acquainted tonight, don’t you think we should drop all the formalities…Sir??”
For the first time in his life, Raj was completely tongue-tied, as he saw her bounce back to her merry self in seconds. He stood transfixed at her transformation. This woman was out to prove all his well-laid beliefs wrong. Just when he thought he had her figured out, she turned back and did something unexpected. She was a mass of contradictions…Brave. Sassy. Intelligent. Cheerful. Witty. Caring. Uncompromising with her beliefs. Tender and sweet with children. Savvy professional. For the love of God, she drives a jeep. And for a brief moment, terror struck, as if innumerable demons had surrounded her, showing a vulnerability and then quickly covering it up…as if that particular window was supposed to stay closed and hidden.
Naina was trembling as she plastered a smile on her face and stretched out her hand, for the first time ever to a man. She had no idea why she did it, but she knew that she had to somehow make amends to this man for even thinking for one moment that he was like them. For all his haughtiness, he was an honorable person and didn’t deserve actions borne out of her fears.
Raj stared at her small hand, and then slowly raised his to engulf hers in a firm grip. He felt a jolt run through him. Her hands were icy, and he had this sudden urge to rub her palms and warm them. He had sensed raw fear in her when she had suddenly fought him. He wanted to know why…and he wanted to know who!!!
Raj shrugged off the questions surrounding him. They have to wait. He smiled, still holding her hand, “Naina it is then. And please call me Raj. Shall we go in?”
Naina felt a warmth spread inside her as she saw her hand disappear in his big one. All her nervousness vanished. She felt safe. And when he took back his hand and turned toward the mahal, she felt a sense of loss. She frowned at the contradictory emotions churning inside her. She looked at his broad back and realized he hadn’t asked her anything and that she owed him an apology, if nothing else.
She fell into step beside him and said, “Raj, I am sorry for my behavior. I....actually I thought someone had attacked me.”
“Yes…so you hit me. By the way you pack quite a mean blow with that elbow.” He looked sideways at her, pointing at his stomach, “Don’t you ever think before giving into self-defense?”
She abruptly halted and put her hands on her hips, “You are a grand one to say that. The other night you almost mauled me with your assassin move.”
“Mauled you? If you forget, you were going to hit me with a stick.”
“I told you I thought you were…”
Their argument halted, as the door opened and beeji’s voice rang out across the shadows of the pathway, “Naina, is that you? Is Raj with you?”
Naina saw Raj turn swiftly and then an expression of pure joy crossed his face, “Beeji!!!”
He rushed to her and engulfed her in a bear hug. Beeji was laughing and crying at the same time.
Raj stepped back and held her by the shoulders, “Let me look at you pretty woman. Gosh! You are still the same…I can bet that even today there’s no girl in Palampur who matches your ethereal beauty.”
Beeji smacked his arm with a giggle, “Stop it Raj! You too haven’t changed. Still the flatterer.”
“A lot has changed beeji,” suddenly somber, he bent to kiss her forehead and give her a squeeze, “But I am so glad to see you again.”
Beeji cupped his cheek, “Now that you are here, everything will be fine. I am so happy you listened to
Meenakshiji and decided to take charge of your heritage here. Your mother, bless her soul, will be at peace up there. Raj, life tends to throw a curve ball just when things start losing their perspective….just to alter your path to a direction that was meant for you all the time.”
Raj glanced at Naina, who was looking at them with a mix of surprise and wonder, and whispered, “I am beginning to believe that. I am glad I took this decision beeji.”
“Good evening, Sir!”
“Good evening, young man! May I know your name?”
“I am Aditya Singh Bhatia. I am six years old. My mumma says I may be young but I am the man of the house.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr Aditya Singh Bhatia. I am much honored.”
The two men solemnly shook hands on that…So what if the tall man had to bend a little even as the pint-sized one pulled himself up ramrod straight to his full height in order to meet the first soldier of his life.
They had come in to find Adi explaining something to Tanu whose wide eyes looked at him in rapt attention. On seeing them, Adi had jumped up and murmured something to Tanu who nodded her head. Looking handsome in jeans and a tucked-in checked shirt, he proceeded to march up to Raj and introduced himself with such seriousness that Naina found it hard to hold back the proud smile. She sneaked a glance at Raj; not a single muscle twitched on his face as he met her son. It was as if he was used to little boys coming up to him and introducing themselves so ceremoniously.
In the meantime, Tanu had run across to Naina, who bent to pick her up, “Hey Tanu! Did you meet Adi bhaiya and beeji?”
Tanu nodded as she touched the danglers Naina was wearing. “Did you tell bhaiya about your day in school?” In response Tanu shook her head and buried her face in Naina’s neck. Raj and beeji had proceeded toward the sofa, but Adi heard his mother.
“Uffo mumma! Tanu is very shy. She doesn’t speak much…She will tell me when she feels right. I told her I will help her with everything. After all I am older and I know everyone and all the places. Right Tanu?”
Tanu nodded and slid down Naina’s lap to stand beside Adi, who took her hand and said, “Mumma says you got a new rabbit today? Furry…right? Will you show me?”
He was awarded with a smile as she tucked at his hand and turned toward the kitchen. Adi stopped, “Wait a sec Tanu. I’ll just be back.”
As Naina went and sat next to beeji, Adi went to Raj, “Sir…”
“Err Aditya, you may call me Raj uncle.”
“But I want to learn soldiering from you, and all soldiers call their officers ‘Sir.’ ” His lips trembled just a little as his voice lowered to a whisper, “Does that mean you won’t teach me?”
Raj reached out and pulled him closer, “Of course I’ll teach you whatever you want to learn, Aditya. OK…let’s do one thing. You call me Sir when we are talking about soldiering and rest of the time I’ll be plain uncle. Is that fine with you?”
Adi looked at him gravely for a few seconds and then smiled, “Yes…OK. And you can call me Adi.”
“Great. We have an agreement then.”
“Raj uncle, I have to go with Tanu to meet Furry. Is it OK if I ask you a few questions later? Mumma asked me not to trouble you too much on the first day, otherwise you might….” He turned as Naina intervened, her cheeks painted pink, “Adi, Tanu is waiting.”
Adi looked at Raj, who nodded, “Go ahead Adi…We’ll have a chat later.” Adi turned as Tanu came and slipped her hand into his and guided him toward the kitchen where Furry’s temporary home lay in the form of a towel-cushioned little box. Raj turned to look at Naina, who was suddenly interested in the large painting on the opposite wall and was already walking toward it.
He realized beeji was asking him something about settling down. He smiled at her, “Beeji, we are fine. It’s not that I had to set up a house here. Whatever luggage is left will arrive in a week’s time. There was an ongoing truckers’ strike in all of Rajasthan, that’s why I couldn’t see to the loading of the boxes myself. Somsinhji will ensure the dispatch. You remember Somsinhji?”
“Of course Raj! He was the one who always accompanied you on your annual vacations here. Your father Ranaji ensured your protection all the time.” Beeji took his hands in hers, “I sometimes forget you are a Kunwar, heir to your father’s riyasat, Devisar.”
“C’mon Beeji. I don’t expect you to believe in kings and kingdoms. These are modern times. I can’t help being born in a family that once ruled Devisar….I don’t remember much of my own mother, but nanasa, nanisa, and you together made me the person I am. What you taught remained with me, and not what they tried to drill in me in Devisar palace. You have no idea how much I looked forward to coming here every year. I breathed freely among these mountains and valleys.”
“Yet you haven’t come in the past seven years.”
“Professional obligations Beeji. I had two back-to-back tenures in remote areas of Kashmir. When my men couldn’t get as much leave as they were entitled to, how could I think of it. When I would get a few days off, I had to go to Devisar. In any case the last two years I was….” He stopped, shaking his head. Naina had heard all as she leant against the wall in the shadows, not wanting to disturb them.
Beeji patted Raj’s hands, “I know Raj….I know. Let’s just stop talking about the past. You are here, and that is what matters.”
“I am sorry that I didn’t dash over to meet you as soon as I was here. But it took me a day to track down Mr Mishra, the old Estate manager. Nanisa had wanted me to look into a few documents urgently. Then there was Tanu. She needed me to settle her in a new place. She is quite wary around strangers.” He glanced at Naina who was now stepping out of the French windows into the dome-shaped verandah, “I didn’t know you were the aunt Naina spoke about. All the years that I knew you, I don’t remember you mentioning her.”
Beeji got up, “It’s a long story Raj. There are pieces even I don’t know of. I respect her privacy. Perhaps one day….” Her eyes glistened, “I’ll go and see where the kids are. And Raj…(as he looked up)…I haven’t told her anything.”
He nodded, “I know Beeji….I never doubted you would.”
Raj got up and walked out to Naina and handed her a glass of juice. She was looking out into oblivion and murmured a thanks without turning. Raj waited for her to say something, but she ran her forefinger over the rim of her glass and kept quiet.
“That has to be a first.” He goaded.
Her head shot up, “What?”
“That you fall short of words.”
“Sometimes silence is more eloquent, Colonel.” She looked at him through her lashes. The fact was his closeness with beeji had moved her. She had no idea beeji was so involved in Raj’s life. But then beeji was good at keeping everyone’s secrets…even hers.
“So…what might I have done?”
“What? What are you talking about?” Naina’s breath caught in her throat as she looked squarely at him. More than his flawless features, it was the balance in their placement that created such a striking whole. His strong face cut complemented the high cheek bones and a fine straight nose. Yet his eyes were the most arresting features. They were dark wells of intelligence and…did she detect a hint of amusement glinting in their depths? Most likely. Dressed in a black shirt and black trousers, he looked the royal that he was as he leaned against a round pillar with his hands in his pockets. A couple of locks of hair had loosened over his forehead, and Naina found herself wanting to reach out and brush them away. A wave of shock passed through her at the waywardness of her thoughts. She turned away in panic and took a sip from her drink, trying to steady herself. What was wrong with her? She had no right to stare down that road, leave alone step on it. Never…never.
“What did you say to Adi? That I turn into an ogre if someone troubles me?”
She turned at that, her eyes flashing, “Of course not! Regardless of your views about women, I don’t do nasty. I just told Adi that you might get irritated and upset.”
“Irritated and upset…huh! Certainly not the characteristics of an ogre….so what are?”
“Angry without a reason, jumping to conclusions and acting without thinking, unfriendly, prejudiced, snobbish…,” She broke off and looked at him with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “Am I allowed to have second thoughts?”
Before he could think of an appropriate rejoinder, she laughed…the musical lilt blew away his senses to numbness. The sound came from inside her. He had never seen a lady laugh with such gaiety and abandonment and yet look so daintily feminine.
She hiccupped to a halt and kept her glass on the parapet, “S...sorry about that. I couldn’t help it.” He was looking at her strangely…probably thinking she was nuts. She straightened herself and said, “OK…you can say it. I won’t mind. I promise.”
“What you are thinking? That how can a woman of my position (gesturing air quotes) behave like a…” She stopped as he kept a finger on her lips and whispered, “Shush! Now who is jumping to conclusions?”
He dropped his hand as the kids came running. Adi stood in front of Raj, “Uncle, is this the right time?”
Raj extended his hand, “Come soldier…let’s take a walk to the armory room and talk there.” Adi tossed a wide grin at his mother and Tanu, who was back in Naina’s lap, before latching onto the large hand and striding away.
Naina had no time to think as Tanu told her that Beeji was calling her.
After dinner, Beeji got ready to go back, “I shall expect you to come home soon Raj. I want to show you the flowers.” She gave him her hand, “We had a lovely evening here. I adore your little girl. She has your features and temperament. I am looking forward to spending some time with her. We have to go now. Naina has to leave for Kangra early in the morning.”
“Kangra? I have to go there too. I have a meeting with the manager of our tea gardens there.”
Beeji looked at Naina, who was standing behind Raj holding a half-asleep Tanu and shaking her head vigorously in a silent message, and asked innocently, “Err Naina…do you want to say something?”
Naina shot daggers at Beeji and said inelegantly, “Who? Me? No.”
“Hmmm! OK.” Beeji turned toward Raj who looked somewhat puzzled, “So Raj if you both are going to the same destination, why don’t you go together?”
Raj looked at Naina, who was still gaping at Beeji, “What do you say Naina? Is it OK by you? Or you have other plans?”
“Other plans? What other plans? I have to go to both the Homes.”
“Right then. It’ll give me an opportunity to visit the Homes as well. I’ll pick you up at eight then. Is that OK?” He took Tanu from her arms and smiled.
“Yes. Fine.” She gritted through her teeth. Throughout the dinner she had strengthened her resolution by repeating to herself, “Keep Distance.” And here she was….stuck with him for an entire day. What was Beeji thinking?
To be continued……